Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Yugos and Donkeys and Furgons, Oh My (Part II)

Back in the land of donkeys and furgons............

In case we weren't sure where we were.......
After an all too quick jaunt across the border into Macedonia, our caravan returned to Albania and the land of donkeys and furgons.  We were met at the border crossing by the return of our military police escort and the sight of bunkers lining the shore. Whereas the roadsides in Macedonia had been litter free, Albania's were strewn with trash piles, half constructed concrete buildings, donkeys, and random people.

Yes, donkeys.  (Here's a fun fact- Albania has more donkeys per capita than any other country in the world).  They are especially prevalent in the southern part of Albania where the sight of a donkey or two on the side of the road, in the middle of the road, or on a hillside is such a common sight that after awhile you stop noticing them.  The only thing more prevalent than donkeys are furgons, the rickety mini-buses that serve as Albania's most reliable source of public transportation.  You see them everywhere in the country, packed with people and barreling around sharp curves in the road.  If you stand on the side of the road one is sure to stop for you- hence the random people standing on the side of the road. (I need to look carefully to determine whether the roadside bystander is watching his donkey or waiting for a furgon).  I'm not sure what is more dangerous, riding in one (which we are not allowed to do), meeting one head on (since they are often on the wrong side of the road), or following behind one (they will abruptly pull over to the side of the road to drop off passengers or pick up new ones with complete disregard to other vehicles around them).

During our weekend we stopped in some of Albania's larger southern cities- Elbasan, Korce, and Pogradec all warranted brief stops for either coffee or a museum tour.  The cities themselves, like Tirana, Durres, and Shkodra to the north, are polluted, traffic clogged concrete jungles.  Former industrial centers during the Communist Era, they are now unattractive litter filled urban cores.  What historic sites may have existed are, more often then not, neglected shells of their former splendors. Elbasan Castle, which at one time was part of Albania's impressive countrywide defense system, has been converted into a hotel and coffee bar.  While slightly interesting, it lacks its former magnitude and now looks like a copy of the hundreds of other stone facaded cafe/bar/hotels scattered around Albania. I found our visit to Korce's mosque and Museum of Albanian Medieval Art disappointing.  Both sites had a neglected feel to them and it saddened me to see relics from Albania's rich religious past being minimally preserved.

Unspoiled mountains
Voskopoja church
Albania's true beauty lays in her rugged mountains and rolling hills.  Between the more urban- by Albanian standards anyway- population points lie thousands of acres of wild, undeveloped, and minimally accessible forests, rocky mountains, tiny hamlets.  Whether they are in the north or the south, these are my favorite parts of Albania and are the reason so many people find Albania to be a truly beautiful country.

We spent the second night of our trip high in the mountains above Korce in the village of Dharda.  Our hotel was surprisingly well constructed and finished.  Many Albanian restaurants and hotels may look finished from the outside but the insides lack basics such as lampshades on lights, plate covers over electrical outlets and trim around doorways and windows.  Restrooms tend to be particularly bad with many of them being a half step above a pit toilet.  (Glenn calls it the 70% rule with things being pretty on the outside but rough and unfinished on the inside).  The best part of our stay in Dharda, however, was the views of the mountains and the sheer wilderness that surrounded us.  At night the sky was unspoiled by the lights of the city and the air was the cleanest I've experienced since arriving in Albania.  Sheep and donkeys definitely outnumbered the human population in this community and even in the rain it had a sense of peacefulness to it.  Dharda is a beautiful place and one I'm sure we will return to.

Our visit to the mountainous "tourist" village of Voskopoja necessitated driving over rutted mud filled roads, through the Sunday morning animal market, and sprawling mountain passes filled with grazing sheep and soggy shepherds.  If you looked beyond the dangerous road conditions and avoiding looking  down at the garbage filled creeks that ran through the villages, you were rewarded with views that rival those found in more popular parts of Western Europe.  Upon reaching Voskopoja, I once again had the sense of a place having so much potential but the inability to execute a plan.  In 1764 Voskopoja had 24 churches and was the largest city in the Balkans.  Today most of those churches are in ruins.  One is well preserved and renovations are underway to restore another.  The rest of the village consists of a smattering of cafes, half built concrete structures and neglected stone buildings connected through a series of mud, stone, and manure filled roads. As a college history major with a professional background in urban planning, I viewed Voskopoja as another yet Albanian village with immense potential.  Unlike truly isolated villages hidden in mountain valleys, you can find Voskopoja on maps and in the few existing guidebooks on Albania.  Done correctly, and sooner rather than later, a planned preservation of Voskopoja could serve as a model of how Albania could do tourism right. Sadly enough, I don't think the village or the country is ready for it.
Up the mountain towards Dharda

Rolling hills outside of Korce
Our long trek home took our caravan along the Albanian shores of Lakes Prespa and Ohrid.  Although less developed than the Macedonian side, the water on the Albanian side was murkier and less attractive.  Old men selling fish from shacks lined the narrow stretch of rocks between the lake and the poorly maintained road.  We were deep in the heart of donkey-country as the number of braying animals clearly outnumbered the human population in this part of the country.  Lunch was a meal of fresh fish eaten at a "70% Albanian restaurant" overlooking Lake Prespa's famous Golem Grad, or snake island.  Again, there was so much unrealized potential in this area that the entire experience saddened me.

Albania is a very mountainous country.  Our final push home took us farther along Lake Ohrid through Pogradec and over one set of mountains and down into the city of Elbasan.  In between the cities the mountain views left us speechless as we drove for miles (or kilometers) with nothing but undeveloped land around us.  The drive up into the mountains from Elbasan left us equally speechless but it was more from the fear of the steep grade of the road and the hairpin turns that spanned the mountains.  Although well maintained by Albanian standards, the sheer drop offs with nary a guardrail or painted line put fear into my heart.  (Young boys standing on the roadside selling strings of fresh cherries only added to the sense of danger since you never knew which sharp corner they would be standing around).  As Glenn drove along I was torn between wanting to take in the sights and my fear of looking down.  A magnificent double rainbow only heightened the beauty of the experience.

It is hard to believe that such amazing beauty can co-exist in a country filled with too much concrete, too many cars and the worst air pollution in Europe.  Due to its geography, so much of Albania remains inaccessible and off limits to all but the hardiest soles who call the mountains home.  As is evidenced by the uncontrolled sprawl that has spoiled so many parts of Albania, it is this inaccessibility that has kept large swaths of Albania preserved.  New roads are continuing to be constructed and in a pre-election year, politicians are promising that these highways will soon be complete and dramatically decrease travel times between cities.  Increased roads will mean increased traffic and the corresponding problems of pollution, unfettered construction, and too people with a complete disregard to their natural environment.  I'm afraid that instead of increasing opportunities for the Albanian people, increased accessibility will actually decrease the quality of life for the majority of its citizens, further endanger Albania's natural resources, and do little to preserve its historic landmarks.  This makes me sad.

"Snake Island" in Lake Prespa

Monday, May 28, 2012

Yugos and Donkeys and Furgons, Oh My (Part I)

In the Land of Yugos

Being escorted through Southeastern Albania
This past weekend we took at road trip through southeastern Albania to Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.  Under the auspices of an Albanian cultural trip, we travelled as part of a nine vehicle caravan with other attaches posted in Albania.  Logic would have dictated that we stay within the confines of Albania's borders but the desire for a brief reprieve from the country had us spending one night on the Macedonian side of Lake Ohrid.

Albania may be a small country, roughly the size of Maryland, but due to its varied geography and abysmal road conditions we spent a large portion of the weekend in our cars.  I don't know how many of you have tried to drive for 400 plus miles as part of a large caravan but visually it is akin to herding cats- mostly by pure miracle we all managed to get from one location to another without getting lost.  Strategically planned coffee stops helped us regroup and power on to our onward destinations.  (When I complained about the stops to Glenn he reminded me that this was a cultural trip and drinking coffee is very much a part of the Albanian experience).

Old Yugoslavian cars
The more we travel in Europe the more amazed I am at how topography, architecture, and culture can be so varied by simply crossing an international border.  Crossing from Albania into Macedonia- or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as the country is officially known, was literally like crossing into another world.  Streets were litter free, infrastructure was modern, Ottoman influenced buildings were well maintained, and traffic laws were obeyed.  Instead of the diesel spewing Mercedes that are ubiquitous throughout Albania, the narrow streets were filled with well preserved cars from the days when the country was known as Yugoslavia.

We spent our first night along the shores of Lake Ohrid in the village of Ohrid.  The small lakeside village is a tourist destination with its historic district protected by its UNESCO status.  The village was filled with the usual tourist attractions you would find at any beach side community- trinket shops, cheap hotels, and fast food restaurants (there was even a McDonald's but for some reason they didn't serve French fries which lead Glenn to proclaim that it really wasn't a McDonald's).  Away from this commercialized strip, however, we wandered through cobblestone streets lined with ancient Ottoman buildings.  Dodging the raindrops we explored churches and an amphitheater, took in the views of the lake and the distant Albanian shore from the ruins of the castle, and sipped Macedonian wine from a waterfront restaurant.

Our brief trip to Macedonia got even better when we left Ohrid on the second day.  Traveling along narrow but meticulously maintained roads (we definitely weren't in Albania any more) we drove high above the eastern shore of Lake Ohrid and into Galicica National Park.  Through a collaboration with the German government, a series of linked hiking trails has been established throughout the park.  Roadside pull offs at trail heads made for easy access for those who are brave enough to hike the sheer cliffs.  The cloudy weather obstructed some of our views but that sheer raw beauty of the area was still apparent.  The feeling of driving above the clouds and looking down onto the villages and lake below was amazing.  We felt as though we were a world away from civilization, and in many respects we were.

We visited two other Macedonian sites that day, the Bay of Bones Museum, a prehistoric development along the shores of Lake Ohrid and the 16th Century Sveti Naum monastery.   Despite the intermittent rain, both of these sites were teeming with other visitors.  While I found both museums interesting, what struck me the most was how well developed and maintained they were.  From the neatly labeled signage- in both Macedonian and English- to the clean restrooms and restaurants, the area is obviously catering to tourists.  The Macedonian government has clearly figured out how to market its assets- both natural and manmade- and they are reaping in the financial benefits.

The Albanian government talks about wanting to attract foreign tourists, but Macedonia has figured out how to make this vision a reality.  Separated but a few miles and two large lakes, the two countries and their approach to tourism could not be more different.  This realization makes me both sad and hopeful at the same time.  I'm hopeful because Albania does have a natural beauty, friendly people, and historic sites that people would travel miles to see.  Under the right circumstances tourists could infuse desperately needed money into the local economy.  Simultaneously, I am saddened by the current reality that the country is so mired in corruption that it can't fully take advantage of the opportunities that exist.

I don't know what the solution is; if it was easy it would have already been done.  What I do know is that the stark contrast between the two countries is nakedly apparent.  It would become even more apparent as we continued our trip back across the border into Albania.

High above Lake Ohrid in Galicica National Park

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Carpe Diem

Seize the day because life is too short not to. 

Every day we hear of a new tragedy striking somewhere in our world.  A too young friend receives a cancer diagnosis, a mass shooting on a college campus, or multiple, large scale natural disasters.  Like many people, I tend to go through life hearing about these events and thinking "it can't happen to me." But somewhere hidden deep in my subconscious, I know it can.  Living in Albania, geographically a European country with many third world characteristics, I am increasingly aware of this.

Today is a national day of mourning here in Albania.  Yesterday, in southern Albania, a bus carrying university students plunged off of a cliff killing thirteen people and injuring twenty-one others.  Having lived here for close to a year I have driven along this section of highway.  From the top of the cliffs the narrow, well-maintained by Albanian standards, road provides sweeping views of the Ionian Sea, Corfu, Greece, and the rugged mountains that are the iconic trademarks of the Albanian Riviera.  This road also scares the living day lights out of me and I spent most of my last trip with my eyes closed as Glenn skillfully navigated the twists and turns.  I am also aware of the speed at which drivers navigate the hairpin turns and the poor maintenance that is the norm for Albanian vehicles.  Upon our arrival in the country, the Embassy warned us about the dangers that stem from driving in this slowly developing country.  We take these warnings to heart but the same can't necessarily be said for the other drivers on the road.  Early reports about the accident indicate that speed and road conditions may be involved but regardless of the cause, over a dozen young lives were snuffed out in the prime of their lives and even more are struggling to survive in Albania's less than state-of-the-art hospitals.

Traffic deaths aren't the only concern in this country.  Geographically we are located in an earthquake zone and the country has been ravaged by them in the past.  Within the past 72 hours two of our neighboring countries, Italy and Bulgaria, have been shaken by earthquakes that have left differing degrees of destruction and death in their wake.  Albania is definitely not immune.  Man made tragedies also strike all too often here.  Centuries old blood feuds are alive and well in parts of Albania with innocent bystanders often being the unintended victims.  Revenge bombings, unsecured, live high-voltage electrical wires, and undiagnosed medical conditions are all a part of daily life here in Albania.  These tragedies have claimed lives within our Embassy community within the past few years. 

The intent of this post is not to be morbid; rather it is to get us thinking.  We need to think about those things we are grateful for.  Living in the United States there are so many things we take for granted.  We assume that the cars we drive are safe, laws will be upheld, our neighbors aren't going to seek revenge for acts committed by our grandfathers years ago, and wires aren't going to fall on us from above.  However, even ensconced in our suburban American neighborhoods, we also aren't immune to tragedy.  You never know when a simple act will change the course of our lives for good. 

As busy as our lives are, we shouldn't put things off for the future since we never know what that future will hold.  I'd like to think that there will be time for all of the travel, time with friends and family, and life's simple pleasures that clutter my bucket list.  Maybe there will be but maybe there won't be.  Spending time with Sidney is more important than dealing with that sinkful of dishes.  An occasional date night with Glenn needs to take a priority over yet another reception.  The stack of papers in my in-box won't magically disappear just because I chose not do take that long weekend trip to Prague.  We all need to reassess our priorities and make time for the truly important things in life.  So go give your loved ones an extra hug and make time for those little things.

Carpe Diem!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Honoring America's Military Family

Today is Armed Forces Day in the United States.  Many Americans are probably unaware of the day but since 1950 it has been celebrated on the third Saturday of May.  Today is a day to pay tribute to men and women who have volunteered to serve in our armed forces.

First a brief history lesson:  On August 31, 1949, Louis Johnson, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, announced the creation of an Armed Forces Day to replace the separate Army, Navy and Air Force Days that were recognized annually. The consolidation stemmed from the unification of the armed forces under one department – the Department of Defense. The Army, Navy and Air Force Leagues adopted the newly established day. The Marine Corps League declined to drop support for an individual Marine Corps Day but supported Armed Forces Day too.

The first Armed Forces Day was celebrated on Saturday, May 20, 1950. The theme for that day was “Teamed for Defense”, which expressed the unification of all military forces under one government department. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the day was designed to expand public understanding of what type of jobs were performed by the military and the role the military played in civilian life.  It was a day for the military to show off the capacity of the military to Americans who might otherwise be unaware of the strengths of the country's armed forces. It was also a day to honor and acknowledge Americans in the armed forces. Parades, open houses, receptions and air shows were held at the inaugural Armed Forces Day.  Armed Forces Day is still celebrated nationwide today and is part of Armed Forces Week, or as it is recognized in the U.S. Navy- Fleet Week.

And now some statistics:*  Just who makes up today's American all volunteer armed forces?  There are 1.46 million active duty service members and an additional 850,000 men and women in the Reserves.  14.4% of all active duty and 15.5% of the Reserves are women. Outpacing the general population, 37.7% of Officers have advanced degrees. Over half of active duty service members are married and 44.1% of this number have children under the age of 18.  Dual military marriages account for 6.7% of all military marriages and 5.4% of active duty military personnel are single parents.  All together there are 1.9 million active duty family members of which 1.25 million are military children under the age of 18. All total, that is a lot of people, both military and civilian, who are part of the American military family.

Being fancy with my favorite member of the Armed Forces
Today:  This past week Glenn (and I) recognized Armed Forces Day by hosting a reception.  Invited guests included American, Albanian, and NATO military members and their spouses currently working and living in Albania. In his speech, Glenn acknowledged the work and sacrifices that both military members and their family members make during long working hours and even longer deployments.  Regardless of our individual nationalities or political affiliations, those of us in the room all shared the common knowledge of what it is like to have a loved one deployed in harms way for months on end.  It isn't easy.

While Memorial Day recognizes those military heroes who lost their lives in battle and Veteran's Day recognizes those who are retired from the Armed Forces, today is a day to recognize those men and women are currently serving our country.  Please find a military member and thank them for their service.  And while you are doing that, thank their family as well.  Their spouses, partners, children, parents, brothers, and sisters are all doing their part as well.  Together we are all a part of the large military family.

*These statistics and many more are part the 2010 Profile of the Military Community study which includes tons of facts, charts, and graphs that data junkies like me find so fascinating.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Peppery Paprika and Other Hungarian Delights

Paprika in the making
For me, no trip would be complete without sampling the host country's local culinary delights.  My trip to Budapest was no exception.  I feel as though I ate my way through the week.......and it was so good!

Paprikas Csirke with Galuska

Hungary is known for its paprika so I made sure to sample a few of its paprika laced foods.  We have all heard of goulash and I had eaten it a few times before my Budapest trip. Earlier versions had always been thick like a stew.  The goulash I ate in Hungary was different; it was more like a spicy beef stew.  It was better than the earlier versions I had tasted. The infamous paprika chicken was pretty darn good.  Being a carb lover, it tasted even better when served on top of a pasta dumpling.  What was even better however, was hortobagyi palacsinta, a chicken filled crepe smothered in a peppery cream sauce.  My friend Laura introduced me to this at 21 Maygar and it was probably the best dish I ate during my trip.

Hortobagyi Palacsinta

Spring is asparagus season. I have yet to find fresh asparagus in Albania.  I haven't seen it in the markets and the Albanians I've   asked don't know what asparagus is.  I have found asparagus in the freezer case of Conad where it is imported to us from Italy.  The few times I've tried it I have been so disappointed that I have stopped buying it. Because of this I was so happy to discover that asparagus is abundant in the spring along the Danube River.  While in Budapest I enjoyed several meals of steamed asparagus.  Straight up and unadulterated by sauces, fresh asparagus is a gastronomical delight.

Making Kurtos Kalacs at a neighborhood market
I've found that street foods are often my favorite meals while traveling. Kurtos Kalacs, a hollow honey cake cooked over hot coals, was my Hungarian discovery. One long strip of dough is wrapped around a wooden spindle then baked over the fire until brown.  Dipped in sugar or cinnamon it was a tasty snack.  The fact that the woman cooking them was dressed in traditional garb only added to the experience.

Hungarian wine
Local cappuccino
And let us not forget the drinks and desserts.  I was introduced to Hungarian wines by friends from the Hungarian Embassy here in Tirana.  I'm a fan of Cabernet Sauvignon and those that I sampled did not disappoint.  My other favorite beverage is coffee.  Yes, there was a Starbucks next door to my hotel but I found myself preferring local coffees.  Much to my delight, the first cappuccino I ordered outside of Starbucks arrived as a drink layered with foam, coffee, hot milk, and local honey.  It was a surprising combination but I loved it.  And it was pretty too.

Bite sized treats are so easy to eat

Within a weeks time span I ate too many fruit and cheese filled strudels.  They were all bite sized, which made them all the easier to consume. (It was a good thing I did as much walking as I did).  Fruit seemed to play a large role in most desserts and pastries since in addition to the above mentioned strudels, I sampled a strawberry shortcake type dessert with a vanilla custard cream and crispy wafer accompanying the fresh strawberries.  The biggest hit for this chocolate lover, however, was a crepe filled with chocolate sauce and sour cherries.   Now that was a great way to end a meal.  

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Mother's Day Message to Sidney

Today is Mother's Day in the United States.  First recognized by Woodrow Wilson in 1914, it is a day set aside to honor mothers and the mother figures in all of our lives.  Its origins are so much more than the commercialized day it has become.

I am typing this from the airport in Vienna, Austria where I am waiting for my connecting flight back to Tirana.  I've been away for a week and I can't wait to get home and see my boys; both the big one and the little one who made me a mother.  As I wait for my flight I'm thinking about this day, motherhood, and the challenges of raising children in this ever changing, fast paced world.

As those of us who are moms can attest, being a mother is a challenge.  My own mother raised three children on her own.  Now adults, I think we all turned out alright.  In our own way, we are all fiercely independent, hard working, caring adults.  I owe this to my mother.

I worry about how my actions, or inactions, will affect Sidney now and in the future.  I worry about the amount of time he watches TV and I worry about what he eats (a bowlful of ketchup while watching an Elmo DVD is definitely not the ideal). As Sidney discovers the world around him I struggle to give him the independence he needs.  Already he pushes away and wants to do things for himself.  I don't want to smother him but I don't want him to get hurt.  I cringe as he barrels down the stairs without holding onto the railing or he scales the climbing wall at the playground.  As Glenn reminds me, he is a boy and boys will be boys.  As such, they will experience all of the scrapes and bruises that accompany boyhood.  I am continually scanning his little body to see his latest bruise or bump. (Yesterday during a Skype session I spotted one on his knee and he proudly informed me that he fell).  As much as I want to protect Sidney from this I know that these experiences are a part of childhood and will only make him stronger.  As much as I would like to at times, I do not want to be that overprotective mother who doesn't allow her child to grow.

My biggest desire is to raise Sidney to be a kind person.  Even as a blossoming 2 1/2 year old he is compassionate for those around him.  Whether a four legged animal or a human he is quick to recognize when others are hurt and express his desire to "kiss to make it better". His spontaneous hugs when I appear down warm my heart beyond belief.    I know the day will come when it will no longer be cool for Sidney to hug his mom but I hope his caring nature never disappears.

I want Sidney to continue to grow into a strong, independent, and compassionate adult. I want him to feel comfortable in his own shoes and have confidence in the decisions he makes.  I promise that when he introduces me to his intended spouse I will be supportive and trust that he is making the right decision.  After all, if I have confidence in the way I raise him, I will then have confidence in the decisions he makes.

Sidney I love you.  Be strong, be brave, and be caring.  Most of all be yourself.  Love, Mama

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Rejuvenating in Budapest

The Parliament Building
I'm in Budapest, Hungary this week for a work related training.  This is one of the great benefits of being employed overseas where training sessions are held in great cities most Americans only dream about visiting.  I may be working this week but for me, this time is a much more than another work assignment.  This week is a much needed and long anticipated escape from my Albanian reality.

In a twist from the norm, on Sunday it was I who walked into the airport while my family drove back home. While Glenn is holding down the fort on the home front- with assistance from the nanny of course- I am having a flashback to the travel filled days of my previous professional life.  I may be sequestered in a hotel conference room for much of the day, but in a return to this environment I am able to focus on my job and how to do it better.  I don't have to worry about rushing home to relieve the nanny, what to wear to that evening's reception or contemplate what I'm making for dinner that night.  Before I left I did offer to grocery shop and cook for the week.  Glenn assured me that he would handle it but I did catch a glimpse of his meat heavy menu for the week and and am now resting assured that both he and Sidney are loving their vegetable free meals.  But back to my time in Budapest...........

This week I've met fellow Americans from Embassies throughout Europe who are working in the same position as I hold in Tirana. We're all spouses who have given up our careers to follow our other halves halfway around the world.  We are fortunate to have the jobs that most of us are over qualified to hold.  Our time away from our respective posts has been enlightening.  We've simultaneously shared horror stories and felt relieved that maybe our situations aren't as dire as we had previously thought.  (I've learned that there are conditions in Europe that are so much more spartan than those in Albania.  Who knew?).  Yes, we're being briefed on the nuts and bolts of our jobs but as is usually the case, the best information comes from our networking opportunities.  

The Chain Bridge across the Danube
And yes, I'm having a little fun too.  I was able to have dinner with an American friend currently living in Budapest. Over a dinner and a bottle of Hungarian wine we were able to compare notes on the highs and lows of Embassy life without interruption.  I've missed long talks with my girlfriends and dinner with Laura was just what I needed to recharge my batteries.   Skype, Facebook, and email are just inadequate substitutes for real human contact.   This is perhaps what I've missed the most about living overseas.

After hours I've been getting out and playing tourist while visiting Budapest's historic sites.  I've strolled around Pest's litter-free sidewalks in the evening, meandered through the Castle District's cobblestone roads, and taken pictures of the magnificent  historical buildings that line the banks of the Danube River.   I'm not a shopper but I've tried on clothing in trendy stores not because I need anything new but rather because I can.  At times I've felt like a country bumpkin as I stand in awe and observe Budapest's cosmopolitan public transportation system, well lit streets with working streetlights, well preserved historic buildings, and feral animal free streets of this capital city.  In many respects, this former communist city is everything that Tirana isn't.  I've also noticed that I'm not the only one doing this; those of us living in the far reaches of Eastern Europe and beyond are relishing in the same sights and experiences.  This week I'm getting to experience so many of these forgotten pleasures that at moments I feel as thought I'm in sensory overload.  

Without a doubt I'm missing Sidney.  By the time I return home this weekend this will be the longest I've been away from him sine he was born.  I know he is in good hands with his dad and I'm loving the fact I can sprawl across the king sized bed and have all five pillows to myself.  I have full control of the television remote and haven't heard Elmo's lispy voice once.  Thanks to the Starbucks that is adjacent to my hotel I have regular access to my beloved vanilla lattes.  For the moment I'm in heaven.

I'm appreciating my time here and I know that is because this is all so different.  In a few days I'll be back to my Albanian reality and I am ok with that.  The hustle and bustle of my days will fill my time and I will  enjoy that as well.  In the meantime, I'm going to go order myself another vanilla latte.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Recognizing National Infertility Survival Day

Today is National Infertility Survival Day.  Most people are probably unaware of this day but to those of us who have struggled with infertility, it is a day that hits all too close to home.  According to the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 6.1 million women in the United States between the age of 15 and 44 have difficulty conceiving and staying pregnant on their own.  I am one of those women.  Today, thanks to my amazing doctor at the Beach Center for Infertility, I am fortunate to have an active, healthy 2 1/2 year old.  Because today is a day that recognizes the 6.1 million of us, I am sharing my own deeply personal story.

Before Sidney was born,  I spent several years unsure as to whether I would ever become a mother.  Like many women my age, I spent my 20s trying not to become pregnant but once I was in my 30s and married, the time seemed right.  Or so my mind thought but my body did not agree.  While so many of my friends and neighbors had their first, second, and even third children, Glenn and I weren't so fortunate.  We were hopeful and tried to remain positive but as each month was met with another crushing disappointment our hope began to fade.

At this time we were living in Norfolk, VA which ironically enough, happened to be a hotbed for cutting edge reproductive medicine.   (I didn't realize that in vitro fertilization was pioneered at Norfolk's own Jones Institute).  After a series of miscarriages, my doctor referred me to a reproductive endocrinologist.  Dr. Flood was warm, welcoming, and supportive and together Glenn and I set about a course of action to overcome the "unexplained" infertility obstacle that stood between us and our much wanted baby.  Over the next 18 months I underwent two surgical procedures, had more blood work drawn and spent more time in doctor's waiting rooms than any person should ever have to endure.  I overcame my fear of needles and became an expert at self injecting hormones several times a day.  I also became an emotionally charged wreck.   Probably much to Glenn's relief, he spent a good portion of this time period out at sea and wasn't home to suffer the emotional mood swings that became a daily part of my life.  Just a few months into this process my body began to feel like a pin cushion that had been invaded by an alien yet there still wasn't any baby.

Everyone deals with infertility in their own way. Some people talk about their experiences openly while others endure the pain privately. To a great extent, I chose the later.  Our families and a few close friends were generally aware of what we were going through but for the most part, we didn't talk about it.  Unless you have experienced the infertility roller coaster, you truly can't understand what it is like.  It is also a deeply personal subject that more tactful people are often uncomfortable discussing.

During this dark period the comments I did hear ran the gamete form positive to negative and just plain strange.  More supportive friends assured us that we would become parents while a particularly callous former friend informed me that God obviously didn't think we would be suitable parents so he was preventing it from happening. Upon hearing this, I was actually speechless for one of the few times in my life.  In what I hope was meant to be a supportive comment, my in-laws even told me that they would be able to accept any child we might adopt as a real grandchild.  In social situations with people we only casually knew the inevitable question was when were we going to having children.  After a time I started bracing myself for these inquiries by having a slew of ready to respond quips in mind.   During this time I was an overly hormonal woman so many of these comments did not sit too well with me.

Instead of reacting to this array of comments, I withdrew into myself.  I sent generous gifts to baby showers but couldn't bring myself to attend.  I spent hours scouring the Internet searching to possible answers.  I convinced myself that if we just kept trying it would work. I continued to change my diet, exercised more, lost weight, and spent numerous sessions in acupuncture all in hopes of making my treatments work.  I was convinced that the third time would be the charm but as the third assisted try turned into the fourth, fifth, and even sixth attempt my body continued to fail me.  Through daily emails and the occasional long distance phone call, Glenn and I discussed how much longer we should try.  After all, this whole experience was taking a physical, emotional, and financial toll on both of us.

As I waited for Glenn's return from deployment, I covertly began to explore the option of adoption.  We were open to the idea but decided to give our current routine one more go before moving on.  Good things can come to those who wait because upon Glenn's return, we started a final round of injections, blood work, and anxiety riddled waiting.  This time luck was on our side and IVF worked its magic.  We were pregnant.  It is impossible to describe the sense of elation I felt that hot June day as I sat in my car in the parking garage talking to Jessica from Dr. Flood's office.  (This was the only place I was guaranteed some small amount of privacy and I had been steeling myself for making what turned out to be the most pivotal phone call of my life).

My miracle baby today
All of this brings me to where I am today.  My heart continues to ache for those women whose desires to become mothers go unfulfilled.  I have felt both your physical and emotional pain.  I know I am one of the lucky ones.  Because of this experience, I will never take anything for granted again.  In a perfect world we would all be able to readily have the babies we want when we want them. In lieu of this perfect world I wish for understanding, compassion, and continued medical advances in the field of women's health and reproductive medicine.  In the meantime time I hug Sidney tightly each night and silently thank everyone who helped make his existence possible.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Albanian Pottery

Throwing the clay
Just north of the city of Lezhe, is the small village of Krajen.  If you didn't know it existed you would easily miss it entirely.  With a bit of luck, a few inquiries to the locals, and a couple of right turns followed by a left at the herd of goats, we found the village and its real gem, Krajen Pottery.

Painting the design
This small pottery factory was founded in 1994 by Italian priests who took advantage of the skills they had learned in their home country and the abundance of local clay found in their new home to established a pottery workshop.  Today a handful of artists work at the site throwing clay to form an array of beautiful pottery pieces.  The artists make it look so easy.  Under the skilled hands of one artist we witnessed a wad of clay emerge as a vase within minutes.

Pottery drying in the sun
The clay pieces are not kiln fired; rather they air dry in the hot Albanian sun until they are hard.  Next one of three women hand paints the colorful, yet traditional designs onto the pieces transforming them into true pieces of art.  Painting is followed by a glazing that preserves the color and ensures that the end products are food-safe.
Pottery on display
The day we visited their showroom was well stocked with a variety of pitchers, bowls, and plates.  Being a fan of anything olive related, I fell in love with an olive bowl; an item so uniquely Mediterranean that I couldn't resist purchasing one.

An olive bowl
There were several other pieces I coveted but I kept myself in check and only bought a few other small items that will make perfect gifts.

After finding out that they will do custom orders, my mind started racing with all of the possibilities. Custom ordered plates perhaps?  Glenn and I had been talking about how we need to replace our every day dishes which after years of use and moves are looking less than presentable. Perhaps a set of plates that we can have personalized is just the thing.  The problem with customizing is making up our minds about the design and color.  Sometimes having too many options is worse than having none!