Saturday, June 30, 2012

Crossing Albanian Borders

Each time I leave or return to Albania I am struck by the stark differences between my current European home and the country I am visiting.  Whether it be Italy, Montenegro, or Greece, I am aware of the immediate contrast between the countries the minute I receive that stamp (or is more often the case as of late, that electronic scan) in my passport signaling my departure from or entry into Albania.  This contrast is especially poignant when I enter a country that shares both a Communist past and a twenty year or so reawakening with Albania.  How is it that I sense an immediate difference when I cross the border between Albania and Macedonia or Albania and Montenegro or even Albania and Greece?  I wonder.....what is it that makes Albania so different from her other Eastern European, or even Balkan, sisters.

I've been thinking about this again this past week as Glenn and I travelled through Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina (albeit ever so briefly) and Croatia as we made our way from Tirana to Zagreb, Croatia.

The narrow and bumpy (yet mostly paved) road that takes you north from Shkoder to the Ulcinj border with Montenegro is typical of Albania. Its poorly maintained surface takes you through arid fields, past crumbling or half built houses (it can be difficult to determine which direction the building is moving), and over trash filled streams.  Traffic- in the form of bicycles, horse drawn carts, rusty furgons, and the ubiquitous Mercedes- turns the barely single lane road into a multi-lane thoroughfare.  An abrupt turn in the road dumps you into the Albania-Montenegro border crossing that is the first joint customs crossing in the Balkans.  The minute you cross the border into Montenegro you are met with freshly paved roads with not a bit of stray trash in sight.  (When we crossed the border in December the road was dirt in preparation for its being widened but even then, it was the road surface smooth, but guardrails lined the sides of the road keeping stray animals off the pavement while keeping the cars on it.

Similar conditions exist in the southern part of the country when crossing out of Albania into Greece at Kakavia.  North of the border in Albania the hills are lined with concrete bunkers facing south towards Greece.  While the roadway is significantly wider in the south than it is in the north, the surface conditions remain rough and the roadsides are filled with trash.  The first time we crossed the border it was dark outside and even without the assistance of streetlights (they essentially don't exist in Albania and when the do, more often than not, they don't work) we could see the dismal conditions on our side of the border.  Immediately upon entering Greece we noticed a difference that went far beyond the language on the roadway signage.  The multi-lane road was well marked and well lit.  Not a piece of trash was in sight either.  Once again, it truly felt like we had entered into another world.

We've also entered and exited Albania via ferry.  On more than one occasion we've taken the overnight ferry from Durres, Albania to Bari, Italy.  Whereas the port and ferry terminal on the Italian side of the Adriatic are well maintained and organized, the port in Durres is a haphazard mess filled with questionably maintained cars with more passengers than seats, poorly maintained road surfaces, begging Roma, and Port Authority police who merely shrug when cars speed by them creating their own driving lanes.  Returning to Durres from Italy is even more interesting.  Cars barrel off the ferry towards the customs booths with complete disregard for anything that might be in their way.  Instead of lines, drivers charge forward jockeying for lead positions.  It is chaotic, overwhelming, and confusing.  In every sense the experience is what I have come to expect in Albania.

Albania's sole international airport, although small, is new and well maintained.  The experience of taxiing towards the terminal is like that of any airport. What is different, however, is the mad rush that ensues as the plane slows to a stop and everyone charges off of it only to be loaded onto the waiting shuttle bus that actually takes passengers to the terminal.  People seem to be afraid that the shuttle will leave without them.  Upon arriving at the terminal everyone pushes and shoves their way into the customs line with complete disregard for signage indicating who should be in what line.   On more than one occasion I've been physically hit by someone as they barge ahead of me in the line designated for holders of diplomatic passports.  (Even if the perpetrators of these assaults were truly diplomats, this behavior is far from diplomatic).  Outside of the airport, conditions are like those in so much of the rest of the country.  Roadways are lined with car washes, coffee bars, and trash; sheep herds obstruct traffic existing the airport, and on more than one occasion while exiting the paid parking lot I've been cut off by another driver using my paid parking fare as their means of escape.

I find that the differences between Albania and other countries all the more noticable when I am returning to Albania from abroad.  I know that even during my brief periods away I am spoiled by orderly driving (yes, even in Italy) where traffic laws are obeyed, roadways that are kept clean, and streets that are well maintained.  I know I enjoy the more organized lines that form at customs booths in Germany, Austria, and Turkey where people wait their rightful turn to receive the stamp in their passport.  Only in Albania have I been greeted with such disorderly and deteriorating conditions.  Inevitably I return to Albania both longing for the more civilized world I have left behind and frustrated by the conditions that greet me.

All of this makes me sad.  I want to take pride in the country I currently call home.  I want my visitors to feel welcomed and I want them to see the wild beauty that does exist here.  I want them to be able to look beyond the poor infrastructure, the dangerous drivers, and the litter filled roadways that set Albania apart from all of her neighbors.  If people stay in the country long enough, perhaps they too will get to know the warm people and experience the natural beauty that fills so much of the country.  I know I spend the first couple of weeks after I have returned here feeling sad and frustrated by the conditions around me.  Eventually I am able to look past this and feel better about my surroundings.  But the cycle perpetuates itself as soon I'm off again on another adventure and with that comes both the excitement of being away and the let down of my return.  Maybe sometime within the next 18 months I will be excited upon my return to Albania.  In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy my time out of country and work harder to enjoy my return home.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Destination Kruja

Our first visit last summer
We had been in Albania less than a month before we discovering the town of Kruja.  Located less than an hour driving time outside of Tirana (which is nothing given the road conditions in the country and the time it takes to drive the shortest of distances), this small mountainside town is historic, touristy, and breathtaking all at the same time.  It has become our go-to location to take our out of town visitors- both official and unofficial.

View of the castle ruins
During the 15th Century Kruja was an important part of Albania's resistance movement against the invading Ottoman Empire.  Under the leadership of Albania's national hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, its castle was a part of Albania's inter-connected communication system that ran the length of the country warning citizens of impending invaders.  Its strategic location is still apparent.  On a clear day, you can see the Adriatic Sea to the west, Montenegro to the north, and the snow covered peaks of southeastern Albania to the south. On one visit we were fortunate enough to see all three at sunset (we even saw the green flash of the sun sinking into the horizon- something we had only previously seen in Hawaii).  During all of our visits, with the sheer mountains serving as a backdrop, we've seen the rolling hills filled with olive groves giving way to the flatter coastal plains.  Sometimes the mountains are shrouded in low lying clouds but it is always beautiful.

Exploring the castle grounds
By far, the main historical attraction of Kruja is its castle ruins and the Skenderbeg Museum.  While the walls remain, the castle itself is mostly in ruins.  It is possible to see the remains of some of the original buildings, including a mostly deteriorated monastery.  A small ethnographic museum depicting early life in Albania is located in one corner of the grounds.  And this being Albania, several cafes have been erected on spots that were once strategically placed lookout spots along the castle's exterior walls. 

In 1982, the Skenderbeg Museum, designed by Pranvera Hoxha, the architecture daughter of the later dictator, opened.  We've toured this museum on several occassions both by ourselves and under the guidance of English speaking docents.  As you wind through the warren of small rooms filled with ancient artifacts, maps, and historical reproductions, you are treated to a thorough retelling of Albania's ancient history.  The crowning jewel of the museum, however, is the panoramic views from the building's rooftop terrace.  From here you can see to the Adriatic and beyond.  (Sidney, of course, is partial to the spring fed water fountain that is built into the side of the museum's exterior walls).

The Ottoman Bazaar
A well preserved stone lined Ottoman Bazaar serves as the heart of the tourist district.  Here aggressive merchants invite you into their shops to view their wares. Some of the goods are tacky- coffee mugs and magnets sporting the faces of Enver Hoxha, the late dictator, and Sali Berisha, the long time Prime Minister. Soviet era military memorabilia (a helmet with a bullet hole??) shares shelf space with hand carved olive wood bowls and old rusted irons.  Other items are uniquely Albanian.Where else can you get a hand woven rug that sports both the Albanian and American flags and stone ashtrays shaped like the ubiquitous Albanian bunkers? Whatever your fancy; whether it be traditional wedding costumes, felted wool slippers and hats, hand embroidered tablecloths, antique dowry chests, or silver filigree jewelry, you can buy it here. Haggling is welcome as are Euros or even American dollars. You will be promised a deal because you are a "special friend".  If you have money to spend and want to shop, the Ottoman Bazaar is the place to go.

Entertaining visitors
This would not be an Albanian town if it wasn't filled with smoke filled cafes and restaurants.  You don't go to Kruja because you want fine dining.  Whether tucked into nooks in the bazaar or perched a top the castle ruins, Kruja has its share of restaurants with menus boasting "traditional Albanian cuisines".  Roasted lamb and village chicken (whole roasted chicken served over heavily salted rice) accompany whatever grilled vegetable is in season.  As is the case in all restaurants in this country, pizza is always an option (and one usually taken by the Brown boys). Harsh tasting red wine and raki are the drinks of choice.  The often mediocre quality of the food is quickly forgotten since the scenic views are the real reason for your visit.

Kruja seems to have a little something for everyone and that is why we keep going back.  So be forewarned, if you come visit us, we will be taking you to Kruja.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Blood Feuds

Blood feuds, or gjakmarrja, although rarer than in the past, are still alive and well in Albania.  This is especially true in the northern part of the country where memories are long and forgiveness is rare.  On our recent visit to Thethi, we saw Albania's last remaining kulla e ngujimit, or lock-in tower, a stone structure that has simultaneously become a tourist attraction and a reminder of this still practiced ancient rule of law.  

A kulla e ngujimit  in Thethi
So what exactly are Albanian blood feuds?  To an outsider blood feuds appear to be a barbaric form of vengeful law and order.  In Albania, these vendettas date back to the 15th Century when all aspects of social life were regulated by a strict code of conduct called a Kanuni.  As part of this code, the killing  of one individual requires that the slain man's family seek restitution through the revenge killing of a member of the perpetrator's family. The code kept women and children off limits from being killed but any male relative could be the next potential victim.  This "eye-for-an-eye" mentality creates a never ending cycle of fear, retaliation, and violence.  If one family or clan was always seeking revenge upon another, no one was ever safe.

In order to keep their men safe, families built stone lock-in towers, or kulla e ngujimit.   Towers were essentially windowless with only small downward facing slots allowing minimal light in while providing those inside with the ability to see everyone who approached. Locked inside these sturdy mini-fortresses, men could safely defend themselves from an enemy family seeking revenge.  Because women were exempt from the direct violence, they were able to bring food and other necessities to their locked in male family members without the fear of being caught in the middle of a fire fight.

Earthquakes, neglect, and time have crumbled all but one of the traditional Albanian lock-in-towers.  Their demise, however, has not put an end to the blood feuds. During modern times, houses or even entire city blocks have become makeshift lock-in-towers, where men in feuding families will live for months or even years without stepping foot into the outside world. (It wasn't so long ago that a house along the river in the center of Tirana served this very purpose).  Lock-ins make it impossible for men to go to work or boys to attend school.  Instead, they spend their days waiting for their female relatives to bring them food and the feud to end.

So how does a feud end?  If both sides are mutually agreeable, ceases to the feuds can be reached. Called Besa, or word of honor, they can take the form of a verbal agreement (after all honor is one of the most important aspects of Albanian society), the payment of a restitution of some kind, or even a marriage between the two feuding families.  These uneasy truces could easily be undone, however, with one family needing to scramble back to safety in order to prevent being killed.

Unfortunately, blood feuds have reemerged with vengeance in recent years earning the northern part of Albania the reputation of being like the wild, wild west.  Since the code was maintained through an oral tradition that all but died during the Communist era, today's feuds are bloodier and more random than ever. Long gone are the many parts of the code that provided a perverse set of rules as to who the next victim could or could not be.  Today's feuds may stem from disputes older than the victims themselves.  Disputes over the ownership of land are at the root of many of today's feuds but other wrongs or perceived dishonors can also trigger attacks.  Once the  killing starts it is virtually impossible to break the cycle of violence quickly.  As has been evidenced within the past few weeks alone, women and children are no longer off limits from being victims. Increasingly, young boys are becoming potential victims and being forced to join their older male relatives in temporary safe havens.  Whether the intended targets or collateral damage, the number of children and young women who have been killed in perceived blood feuds is growing.  As innocent bystanders get caught up in the violence, the circle of the blood feud only grows.  

In a country still entrenched in so much poverty and inequality, the existence of blood feuds simply adds to the potential hardships families face.  It amazes me that this way of dealing with conflicts still exists in 2012.  But it does.  Again I am reminded that although Albania is physically located in Europe, in many respects it is a world away from her more urbane neighbors.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Into the Northern Wilderness

The long and bumpy road
Last weekend we went north- far into Northeast Albania to the mountain village of Thethi (If you look on the map on the right side of this page, Thethi is approximately 70 kilometers northeast of Shkoder).  Distance wise, Thethi isn’t that far from Tirana; culturally and geographically, however, this tiny mountain village that is cut off from the outside world for six months of the year, is a world apart from Albania’s noisy, pollution filled capital city.  This predominately Catholic village is, and always has been, so isolated that through the years invading armies and empires bypassed it entirely.  Access isn't easy and visiting Thethi is very much like going back in time.

Prime real estate
With the exception of a couple of detours due to a lack of signage, the drive from Tirana took five hours.  The first two sped by relatively quickly since we were on Albania’s main north-south highway.  North of Shkoder, things came to a bumpy halt as we turned off of the main road and onto a narrow, albeit paved, country road that twisted its way through the valley floor and up into the mountains. 

In the village of Boga the road abruptly turned into a rutted, gravel and boulder filled path.  Initially Glenn thought the road was merely washed out and the pavement would return.  For the next three hours we bumped along hairpin switchbacks as we climbed up through the Qafa e Tërthores pass (1,630 meters high)  then descended into the Thethi valley below.  The views of the snow covered Albanian Alps were breath taking, as were the road conditions.  (Only in Albania would such a road even warrant mention on the national map as an “important secondary road”).  We encountered only a handful of other vehicles along our route and when we did, it took a lot of back and forth negotiating for all of the vehicles to pass by each other safely.
The Shala River in Thethi

View from the old grist mill
In Thethi we stayed in a traditional Albanian guest house.  Although geographically isolated, Thethi has an emerging eco-tourism industry due its proximity to Thethi National Park which is a part of the Balkans Peace Park Project.  As such, families throughout the valley have opened parts of their homes into guest quarters where visitors can stay and partake in traditional Albanian food, drink, and hospitality. The Çarku family served as our hosts for the night and while their home was far from luxurious, it provided us with a glimpse into traditional multi-generational Albanian families.  Their warm Albanian hospitality made up for the lack of hot water, no electricity after nine thirty at night and  beds and pillows that felt like cement slabs.  (I’m still trying to block out the images of the scorpions in the otherwise clean bathroom).  We dined on home grown, produced, and cooked food by candlelight and looked out into the inky darkness of the night. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place where it was truly that dark.  By daylight, the sweeping views from the second floor veranda allowed us to see the Shala River , Qafa e Pajës, Valbona Pass and beyond.  At night, the village was a black abyss filled with unidentifiable night sounds.

The highlight of our stay was the hike up to the Thethi Waterfall, a crystal clear and icy cold fall that cascaded 25 meters down into a deep pool.  Of course, I should know that a “quick walk” with a member of the Albanian Special Forces will be anything but easy.  Somehow four adults and three small children safely made the hike along the river and up over boulders, crossing three streams, trekking through a field of grazing sheep, and avoiding stepping on one snake before arriving at our destination.  (Ropes were harnessed around the two young boys in our group to prevent unwanted escapes off of the path). Our efforts were rewarded with not only the spectacular view of the falls but that of the valley and mountains below and beyond us.  Even Sidney was impressed; he loved splashing in the water and looking at the animals.  At one point on our walk along the river he asked us to stop so he could look at the river flowing below us.  He then signed deeply and mixing his English and Albanian into a single sentance said “so uji” (so water). 

Family time at Thethi Waterfall

The entire weekend was an awe inspiring experience that reiterated how beautiful and wild parts of Albania still are. I'm a city girl at heart but my favorite parts of Albania are those that are inaccessible and far from the urban centers.  This trip reminded how lucky I am to have the opportunity to experience a place so few people have the chance to visit.  Yes, it was rustic and rural and as I lay in the pitch black darkness at two in the morning I longed for my own soft bed.  Next week will find me staying in much more comfortable accommodations in Croatia but bugs and all, I wouldn't trade this past weekend for anything.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Year In Numbers

The day after we arrived in Albania last year.  The entire meal cost us $3.60.

We arrived in Albania exactly one year ago today.  For those of you who have been following my blog since the beginning, you know it wasn't an easy trip over.  We're as settled as we'll ever be so in honor of our one year Albanian anniversary, here's a recap of our year:

Albanian Life

548      days until we depart Post
365      days since we arrived at Post
364      days that I've wondered what we have gotten ourselves into
50        the percentage by which my Albanian skills have actually diminished since arriving here- 
                 Sidney is the only Brown whose Albanian has actually improved over the past year
40        in dollars, the cost for the best haircut and color I have ever had
20        in dollars, the cost of a lunch out at a sit down restaurant, including wine and beer and a 
                generous tip, for the three of us
6          number of months we've agreed to stay beyond our original two year orders
5         average number of pizzas consumed by the Brown boys each week
2         times we've run out of water to the house
1         car accident


1000+ number of "gows"- cows behaving like mountain goats- we have seen on our travels into the
99%   the chances we will see at least one donkey drawn cart each day
50       grazing sheep and cows we see when driving to the grocery store
32       number of traffic jams that have resulted due to sheep and goat herds in the road
10       number of near miss accidents that have occurred because of animals jumping out into the
3         the number of chickens I saw in our neighbor's tree (I'm serious)
2         number of cows living in our neighborhood

Diplomatic Life

430   people who have dined at our house
150   bottles of wine we've been gifted (and drank)
39     official receptions and dinners attended
32     dinners and receptions hosted; I did the cooking for all but two of them
31     number of days of solo parenting while Glenn has been out of the country
24     guests for our largest sit down dinner.  I did all of the cooking and after the dinner Glenn
            found me laying on the kitchen floor muttering the words "never again....never again"
20     the time in minutes it takes to drive from our house to the Embassy on a bad day (the distance
            is less than a mile)
17     bottles of raki we've been gifted and not drank
4       number of times mail has arrived at the Embassy and we haven't had at least one package (at
            an average of two deliveries at week, that is a lot of online shopping).
3       the number of times I've eaten questionable organ meats in the name of diplomacy
1       number of raki burnings attended (again, in the name of diplomacy)

Traveling Life 

1000+  number of cups of coffee I have consumed over the past year
34        days until our summer vacation
23        castle themed restaurants visited
11        actual castles visited
9          countries visited (plus 3 separate trips to Italy)
8          days until our next foreign trip
5          castles converted to cafes visited
4          ferry trips across the Adriatic
3          overnight stays in questionable hotels
2          average number of hours it takes to eat an Albanian lunch
1         number of times I flew Albanian Airlines before it was shut down due to safety concerns
0         number of our bags lost by airlines flying in and out of Tirana (we are very lucky)

Its been quite a year!

One year later and the menu hasn't changed

Friday, June 15, 2012

Under an Iron Fist

Albania has a long and storied history. Some of it is grand and heroic- the national hero Skanderbeg is a legend whose story permeates Albanian culture.  Much of Albania's history and national pride revolves around fending off conquering empires.  A much darker part of Albania's history, however, is some of her most recent.  The era of Communist rule from 1943 to 1992 was one filled with terror and persecution and its horrors are still fresh in the memories of many Albanians.

Known as the People's Socialist Republic of Albania, at various times the government found themselves aligned with neighboring Yugoslavia and the more distant U.S.S.R. and China. Fearing what they viewed as subversive activities, in 1952 the Albanian government, under the leadership of the disturbed dictator Enver Hoxha, enacted a penal code that required the death penalty for anyone eleven years of age or older who was found guilty of conspiring against the state.  Following Stalin's death and what Hoxha viewed as the Soviet's traitorous actions against Communism, Albania withdrew from the Warsaw Pact and eventually severed all ties with the U.S.S.R.  A new alliance was formed with China and inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Hoxha embarked upon his own cultural and ideological revolution by renouncing professionalism in the army, slashing the salaries of mid and high level officials, and exiling white collar professionals to toiling in fields and factories.  Farms were collectivized, churches closed, ministries eliminated, intellectuals persecuted, and the education system was reformed. 

Albania eventually turned completely inward. They severed ties with China and fearing foreign influence, entered into a long period of self-imposed isolationism.  It was during this time that Hoxha had thousands of concrete bunkers built throughout the country.  Hoxha began to purge the executive leadership from his remaining ministries and initiated slander campaigns accusing leaders of spying for the United States, British, Soviet, and Yugoslav governments.  As Hoxha's health declined and his apparent paranoia increased, former comrades disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances and all of Albania appeared to be on an increasingly downward spiral. 

With the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of the Velvet Revolution, Communism throughout Eastern Europe was gradually replaced with democratic ideals and fragile democratic societies.  Albania's transition period was as bloody and ugly as her recent past.  Through the perseverance and persistence that has marked the country's entire history, Albania emerged as a democratic nation and quickly sought to rid itself of all reminders of their Communist period.

Last week I visited Albania's National Museum of History for the first time.  One of their newer exhibits is a heart-wrenching depiction of Albanian life under Communism.  Although small, the graphic (necessarily so) display of artifacts and photographs drove home the horrors of what life must have been like during this dark period in Albania's history.  During the visit my emotions were as raw as they had been during my first trip to the Holocaust Memorial in Washington D.C. 

Two members of my party were Albanian women who lived through this period.  Their emotions further fueled my own as they identified photographs of family members and family friends who had been persecuted or executed for being intellectuals who rebelled against the Communist regime.  They shared their personal stories of the fear that permeated their society as clergy and intellectuals were systematically rounded up and persecuted while religious institutions were shuttered or converted into military outposts and warehouses. Perhaps the most chilling of all, however, was the collection of tools and torture devices that had been used to kill dissenters.  A long list of names of all the Albanians known to have been killed by the ruling regime during this time brought a somber close to this powerful exhibit depicting this ugly era.

I was relieved to leave the museum and return to the bright June sunshine.  This exhibit was one of the most difficult ones I have seen in a long time.  This difficulty is what makes it so important.  Unlike so much of Albania's history, this era is not ancient history.  Today, most Albanian adults have at least fleeting memories of this dark period.  As hard as it may be, I believe that it is important for everyone to know their history and that of the world around them.  Not knowing opens up the possibility of history repeating itself and this is more often than not, not a good thing.

Monday, June 11, 2012

All NatYral

Organic food is trendy.  In the U.S. people flock to Whole Foods Market and their local Community Supported Agriculture farms for fresh organically grown meats, dairy products, and produce.  Organic soaps, beauty products and even clothing pack shelves in stores that market themselves as being environmentally friendly.  For true believers, cost is no object when it comes to providing their families with the freshest and most natural products available.

In Albania, as in many developing countries, being organic is and has been a way of life long before it became a trend.  Due in part to tradition, the lack of access to and the inability to afford non-natural fertilizers and pesticides many farmers continue to farm organically.  Most of the Albanian grown produce you find in roadside vegetable stands is organic even if it isn't labeled as such.  If you mention the phrase "organic" to many Albanians they don't understand what you are saying since farming in this country is by default, organic.  As Albania develops and becomes more western, however, there is a growing trend towards the labeling and marketing products as being organic.

Olive oil ready to be exported
Once such example that is on the cutting edge of this trend is the NatYral Farm located on the outskirts of Tirana in Ndroq.  Started in 2006 as local olive oil producer, the farm has expanded to include the export of extra virgin olive oil to other European countries as well as the production and local sale of dairy products.  This past weekend I had the opportunity to tour the farm and olive oil factory.

The olive oil factory set up was impressive.  Olive harvest season is during the late fall so olive oil wasn't being produced during our visit. We were still able to see the large cleaning and processing tanks where olives from four different southern Albanian locations (Elbasan, Fier, Vlora, and Himara) are brought in and pressed into extra virgin olive oil.  At peak operation, the factory has the capacity to process 17.5 tons of olives an hour resulting in 5,000 tons of olive oil each season.  (Imagine what that pile of pits looks like!)  We were also able to go into the underground storage cellar where the freshly pressed oil is stored in temperature controlled tanks before being packaged in tins and shipped off to distributors.

Cows on the farm
Our next stop on the farm was the cow barns.  It was a very hot day and I was dreading our schlep through the barns.  First, as silly as it may sound, cows scare me.  I also dislike the unpleasant conditions that exist on so many farms.  Up until this time, all of the farm animals I have seen in Albania have looked dirty, malnourished, and sad.  (This includes our two neighborhood cows who often cause traffic jams at the end of our street).  Much to my delight, these cows were clean and clearly well fed.  Despite the hot day, the cow barn didn't have that overwhelming stench I associate with farms.   These cows were obviously well cared for.  If there was any doubt to this it was quickly put to rest when we had the opportunity to sample and purchase farm fresh dairy products.  The cheeses and yogurt tasted fresh and the milk tasted like the milk I remembered from my childhood.  For the first time since we arrived in Albania, I added fresh milk to my other dairy purchases.

Organic Albanian products
An extension of NatYral Framing is the recently opened NatYral Restaurant right here in Tirana.  (The restaurant is conveniently located next door to a retail outlet that sells milk, butter and cheeses from the farm).  Operated by Ignazio Campanale, a Italian trained chef who has taught cooking classes at our Embassy, the atmosphere and food at NatYral Restaurant is nothing short of fabulous.  The interior of the restaurant is bright and airy and has an open kitchen- a highly unusual feature in Albanian restaurants. (I figure that any kitchen that is willing to let its patrons watch the food being prepared has nothing to hide).  The food is billed as traditional Italian food made with Albanian products; everything I've eaten there has been fresh, flavorful, plated beautifully and tasted unlike anything else I've had in this country.  The flavor combinations are as complex as Albania is ancient.  The hard part is deciding which menus items to chose.  At a recent lunch Glenn and I ended up placing both of our plates in the middle of the table and sharing.  I was torn between eating slowly to savor the flavors and picking up my pace before the food on the shared plates disappeared.  We liked the restaurant so much that we've already planned to treat our next out of town visitors to a dinner there.

Like most stores and restaurants in Albania, the prices at both the NatYral Farm and NatYral Restaurant are shockingly low by American standards. These prices make it so affordable to eat quality, organic products that it is a shame not to.  It is foods like these that make it so easy to eat well in Albania.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Playing Tourist in Tirana

We've been in Albania for almost a year but it was only over the course of this past week that I finally got out and played "tourist" here in Tirana.  While we've traveled through most parts of Albania, Tirana itself has remained a mystery to me.  To me the City was loud, dirty, and uninteresting.  I'd like to say that it was my own curiosity that got me out and about touring Tirana's highlights but that isn't the case.  Work, both my paid position at the Embassy and my unpaid responsibilities as Glenn's spouse, is what pushed me into tourist mode.

I started out the week by taking part in a walking tour of Tirana's most important cultural sites.  Sponsored by the Municipality of Tirana, the tour was offered as part of the City's newly expanded tourism initiative.  The tour was so new, that my party was actually the first one to take the tour.  Upon hearing this, I was a bit skeptical about what the next 90 minutes would hold.  As it turns out, I was in for a real treat.

City bunker
The well-versed tour guide led us down Boulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit through Skanderbeg Square and past the major ministry buildings, government offices, and museums.  While I have driven past these places numerous times over the past year, I've never taken the time to actually look at them closely.  This is probably because I'm usually too busy making sure I don't get hit by wayward vehicles.  Before the tour I never fully understood the religious history of Albania and the story behind the Et'hem Bey Mosque, the oldest mosque in Tirana.  Nor did I realize that the stark Tirana International Hotel was actually built during the 1980s as part of a nationwide campaign to bring select tourism into Albania through the building of "international" hotels in the country's major cities.  The guide informed me that the stately ministry buildings lining Skanderbeg Square were designed and built but the Italian government as part of an experiment to see if their design and function would work.  I learned that any building over six stories high was constructed after 1991 and the width of the broad boulevard was specifically designed during World War II so that the Italian occupiers could roll their tanks through the City in a show of military force.  We saw the home of former dictator Enver Hoxha in the once exclusive Blloku area.  Once a guarded community open only to the Communist elite, the neighborhood is now a maze of streets filled with trendy shops, cafes and too many cars with not enough parking.  And, this being Albania, we were shown a brightly colored bunker right across the street from the Parliament Building.  By the end of the tour I realized that Tirana has so much more to offer than what you see on its dusty, loud, concrete surface.

National Museum of History

The end of the week found me back playing tourist as I put on my "Attache spouse hat" and accompanied the wife of a distinguished military visitor on a tour of Albania's National Museum of History.  I have been driving past this stark Communist era building at the end of Skanderbeg Square since we arrived here last year but I had never ventured inside.  With the help of two English speaking tour guides we were lead on a whirlwind tour through Albania's history from the ancient times to the present.  Original religious icons and reconstructed mosaics shared display space with graphic photographs from the Communist era and an odd exhibit dedicated to the Albanian postal system.

My Albanian skills got a real workout as I tried to read the descriptions that accompanied each display.  I was a college history major but I'm ashamed to admit how little I knew about the ancient history of this part of the world.  I've studied the history of the lands that are now Italy, Greece, and Turkey but somewhere along the way I never realized that the land that is now Albania was at the heart of Illyrian, Byzantine, and Ottoman history.  Always the occupied and never the occupying country, so many of Albania's historic treasures have been lost or destroyed forever.  The museum screamed of it's Communist origins- stark, no nonsense architecture and cold interiors yet had the quirkiness that I find uniquely Albanian- ornate stairways that lacked handrails and other safety precautions and rooms that just weren't quite finished. 

The small but well curated exhibits provided a nice explanation of Albania's rich past to both the first time visitor as well as those of us who have been here a bit longer.  I love history and museums are usually the first places I visit when I am in a new place.  I am surprised that it took me this long to actually visit the museum but now that I have, I know I will return.  Next time, however, I'll go with my Albanian-English dictionary in hand. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Power of Female Friendship

Friends.  They are the life blood that keeps us going.  Humans are innately social creatures and from an early age we seek out others for companionship.  I am fortunate to have wonderful variety of friends.  They have been with me through the various stages of my life and continue to be a source of support, friendship, and inspiration. Thanks to Facebook and other social media, I have the ability to easily keep in touch with friends I have met as far back as elementary school and all the way up to my current Albanian life. 

Having a younger brother and no close cousins or neighbors of a similar age, my earliest friend was an imaginary one.  Nancy was a mainstay in our house- she accompanied me to dinner, shared my toys, and even took the fall when I did something wrong.  (Yes mom, the pennies inserted into the television slots during a game of "laundromat" were Nancy's influence).  Nancy and I loved the Nancy comic strip and at one point I unsuccessfully petitioned my parents to change my name to Nancy.  Nancy and I finally parted ways when I entered first grade but even to this day I still think of her. 

Michelle was my best from from elementary school.  I met her when I moved to a new school in the middle of fourth grade.  Being the new kid is always hard but she made it easy.  We were immediately inseparable, spending after school hours and weekends together.  Following my father's untimely death when I was in fifth grade, she was the one constant in my preteen world and helped me get through that dark period.  We drifted apart in junior high but recently "re-friended" each other on Facebook. 

In high school my best friend was Shelli.  To this day, she is my oldest friend that I keep in touch with on a regular basis.  Shelli is like a sister to me and throughout high school was included in all of our family events.  We shared the angst of teenage crushes, endured the hurry-up-and-wait of college acceptances, and moved into adulthood together.  Although we attended different colleges, we saw each other as regularly as our schedules permitted (this was pre-Facebook!), and as adults settled within an hours drive of each other.  We shared adult heartbreak and joys and years later ended up giving birth to our sons within months of each other. 

College found me at an all women's school, surrounded by strong women of varied ideologies, experiences, and aspirations.  During my first year, by the luck of the draw, I shared a dorm with the women who would become my closest friends in adulthood.  Alison, Pam, and Andrea, three women who are as different as night and day, quickly became friends who played, and continue to play important roles in my life.  They supported me though college life then the transition into those first tumultuous post-college years where bad relationships, bad jobs, and bad apartments were the norm.  When I finally met the right person, Pam and Andrea were at my side when I walked down the aisle- only after scrutinizing Glenn before giving their approval.

Marrying into the Navy brought about a whole new set of challenges.  With each change in Glenn's assignment came a new set of acquaintances.  Gone were the days of choosing who I socialized with based on my interests; rather I was introduced to a whole new set of women through spouses clubs (or knives clubs as they are unaffectionately called).  On this front I once again lucked out.  Glenn's assignment to and subsequent deployment aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt allowed me to meet Victoria and Johanna.  We got to know each other over drinks and dinners during the endless months of workups and deployments.  When Sidney was born early (and out of state) they rallied around me by providing support from afar.  When we were back home they provided us with hospital visits, home cooked meals, and the support a first-time mother needs. Victoria's wisdom on doing battle with Tricare helped me get through those first scary months. 

The move to Albania was a tough one; new language, new culture, and a whole new world.  It was a struggle to settle in and I am still struggling to find my own niche in this new life we have temporarily made for ourselves.  I've met a lot of people since we arrived last year and with each new acquaintance I wonder whether they will be the one who becomes that true and lasting friend.  Happily I have found that special friend.  Marcelle is my friend, partner in crime, and shoulder to learn on here in Tirana.  We spend hours talking over lunch and provide support to each other at the monotonous receptions we both must endure.  I am sure this is a friendship that will endure long after we have returned to our respective home countries. 

As is the case with life in general and Navy life in particular, we all move on but for me, the one constant is my friends.  I know that all I have to do is pick up the phone or click that mouse and my friends will be there for me.  I am constantly reminded of this when I have the opportunity to get together with girlfriends. No matter how long it has been since we last got together it seems as though we pick up right where we left off.  Its amazing and it gives me the strength I need. I only hope I provide the same support in return. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Where are all the Mamas?

This weekend was the calm between the storms.  The month of May passed in a blur with either Glenn, myself, or both of us traveling outside of Albania each week.  With a calendar full of receptions, trips, and VIP visits ahead of us, June looks like it is shaping up to be just as busy.  Because of this, we took advantage of a full Saturday and Sunday without any plans and this weekend we just hung out and spent time together as a family.

So what does a lazy weekend look like when you have a toddler?  Playground time, ice cream, pizza, and water table activities take center stage.  Throw in some matchbox car races, building with Legos, and a smattering of Elmo videos and you have our weekend in a nutshell.

We're in the midst of potty training in the Brown household and as a result  Elmo's Potty Time DVD has become a household staple.  (I have come to realize that Elmo has a DVD for everything- bedtime, road trips, animals, letters, spring time; you name it and the Sesame Street/Elmo franchise is one step ahead of us).  We've fallen under their influence and Sidney is now a complete fan.

For those of you who have not had the (mis)fortune of viewing this potty training video, Elmo explores the concept of potty training with his father by his side.  While Sidney is missing the whole potty training concept, he screeches with excitement every time Elmo's "dada" appears on the screen.  He has the same reaction when he watches the Bedtime with Elmo and Elmo Travel Songs DVDs.  Whether on a road trip or settling into bed for the night, these videos center on the little red monster and his father spending time together.

It was midway through the third viewing of the potty video that I asked myself "where is Elmo's mother?".  Watching the videos again I counted one fleeting reference to Elmo's mom; Elmo and his father briefly mentioned how pretty she was. That was it. In the hours upon hours of cartoons, I found a single reference to the she-monster who had birthed this childhood icon.  So I asked myself:  what message does this really send?

In the United States alone, there are 13.7 million single parents raising 21.8 million children.  83.1% of these single parents are women.  On a daily basis we hear about the need for children, and especially young boys, to have positive male role models in their lives.  In an ideal world these role models would be fathers who reside in the same house as their children.  As statistics show, all too often this isn't the case.

I understand that Elmo and his muppet friends live in an inner city- the type of community where active participation by fathers lags far behind the rest of America.  I get it.  What I don't get is how come mothers aren't getting the same air time as the dads.  They are the ones, especially in the inner city neighborhoods, who are bearing the brunt of the child rearing responsibilities.  They are the ones who are potty training their children, putting them to bed, and making sure they are safe and cared for.  The overarching message of all of these Elmo stories may be that fathers need to be more involved in their childrens' lives.  If that is the case, I question who is the targeted audience of this message?  If you are three and watching Elmo you will realize it if your father isn't there helping you with the same things that Elmo's father helps him with.  If it is your mother who does these things you may wonder where Elmo's mother is or more likely, you'll wonder where your own father is.  If you are the absent father, however, you aren't there to receive any of these messages.

My own little Elmo with his Dada
Sidney is fortunate to have both a father and a mother who are there for him.  We both put him to bed, change his diapers, read to him, and take him on outings. More often than not, the three of us do these things together.  I endure the same amount, if not more, of Elmo videos, as Glenn.  Sidney has learned a lot from Elmo.  He knows his colors, his numbers and most of his alphabet.  He knows that Elmo's father takes care of him and keeps him safe.  He has learned about firetrucks, emotions, and cowboys from his little red friend.  What he hasn't learned, however, is that Elmo has two parents who love him and share in his upbringing.  Maybe I'm missing something here but I think that would be the most important, and meaningful message of all.

What I would love to see is a video that centers on Elmo and his mother. Maybe it exists and I just haven't found it yet.  If it is out there, I want to know.  That is a movie I would't mind adding to Sidney's expansive Elmo collection.