Thursday, August 30, 2012

American "Culture" Abroad

The depth of America's cultural influence on the rest of the world continues to amaze me.  Here in Albania there seems to be an unhealthy obsession with all things American.  Whether it be our Ambassador, our president, our pop culture, or our foods, people in this country seem to love all things American.  My first real glimpse of this was leaving the airport for the first time and passing by the Albanian Coca-Cola plant.  In a country devoid of western franchises (no McDonalds here although there is a Kolonat that tries to replicate the golden arches), its perch on the side of the autostrada was immediately noticable.   My first visit to a cafe was spent listening to Michael Jackson's Beat It.  Streets honoring Bill Clinton and George W. Bush can be found in most Albanian cities and the town of Fushe-Kruja pays homage to W. with his own statue in the town's main square.  At a minimum most Albanian towns have a least one store, restaurant, or hotel with the word "America" in its name. For the most part I have grown accustomed to Albania's fixation with us over the past year and try to accept it for what it is.  I continue to be surprised, however, with the scope of America's influence in other, more highly developed countries.

We have seen or heard pieces of America in every Eastern European country we have visited over the past year.  Whether it be the Starbucks in Istanbul, an Apple store in Rome, the Hard Rock Cafe in Budapest, or a Sephora shop in Ioannina, we've had the opportunity (if we wanted it) to partake in American consumerism abroad.  Despite all of this, it was during our family vacation to Scandinavia this summer that I further experienced how vast this influence truly is. 

Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have all the hallmarks of truly developed western societies.  Citizens here are highly educated and have some of the highest standards of living, salaries, and corresponding costs of living, of any countries in the world.  Their capital cities are amongst the world's greatest offering impressive arrays of cultural, historical, and gastronomical delights.  Yet so many of these offerings are American.  Although a local boutique hotel, the television in our Stockholm hotel offered more American program options than anything else.  CNN was the primary news channel and American mainstays such as Law and Order, CSI Miami, and a Europeanize Biggest Loser (which unfortunately revealed a lot more than its American counterpart) filled the primetime viewing hours.  Even the movies came out of Hollywood and like their small screen counterparts were aired in English with Swedish subtitles.  On the streets we were equally inundated with Americana.  7-11s dotted every street corner in Bergen (although these stores only vaguely resembled their inner city American sisters) and the TGI Fridays on Oslo's main street was the local biker hangout.  New York style pizza and San Diego style hotdogs were hawked from storefronts in all the cities we visited. (I have no idea what the later is but people were consuming them with gusto).

Because we were in Scandinavia Volvos and Saabs were the cars of choice along the interstates, but then again Ford now owns Volvo.  We were able to listen, without understanding, to local radio shows being broadcast in Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian but more often than not, the talk was interspersed with American pop music that brought us back in time to our high school proms.  From Bruce Springsteen to Madonna and every other 1980s pop music icon, there just wasn't any escaping American music.  Instead of making me homesick, however, all of this just made me want to turn off the radio and run and hide.

We're gearing up for another foreign adventure this weekend.  This time we're headed to Italy where, in a country that despite its rich heritage, culture, and cuisine, we'll pass by our share of McDonald's and Burger King restaurants, hear American pop music on the radio, and share the road with Fords and Chevrolets.  America's influence is indeed so far reaching that it makes me wonder where I have to go to escape it.

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Beer Evolution

One of my favorites- June 2011
Beer.  Its the universal elixir.  I'll take a quality glass of red wine over a beer on most days but a good beer can be hard to resist.  I'm not talking about the watery mass produced brews most Americans associate with beer; Budweiser, Miller, and Coors- brands that are quintessentially American and served as "imports" in every part of the world except America.  Bucking the trend of most women I know (yes, this is a stereotype, so for that, I apologize), I prefer a dark beer to a light one any day.  In fact, the darker the better.  My favorite from my college years is Black Cat Stout from the Northampton Brewery in Massachusetts.  When I do drink beer I would enjoy it for what it was but never really thought about how it was made or the science behind its production.  And then I met Glenn..........

Driveway brewing- Norfolk VA circa 2006
One of the first things Glenn told me about himself was that he was a home brewer.  This fact didn't necessarily impress me but I had a vague idea of what it meant.  Or so I thought. (In hindsight the full-sized chest freezer that had been converted into a keg-o-rator that dominated the kitchen should have been a clue).  I quickly learned that when Glenn said he was going to brew a batch of beer it would be an all day endeavor and I had better find something else to occupy my entire Saturday.  Brewing for Glenn is serious business.  I didn't completely understand the brewing contraption that took up a good part of our garage (and later got a permanent built-in spot in the remodeled garage).  What I did know was that when it got rolled out into the driveway, all of the men from our neighborhood descended upon our house in Norfolk like moths to flames.  (The same thing happened in our Washington D.C. neighborhood to a lesser extent).  I could stand at the kitchen window and watch as the men would reluctantly answer their ringing cell phones to explain to their wives (who also had a full view of our driveway from their windows) how Glenn needed their "help" and they couldn't possibly return home.  Admittedly, I was grateful for this "help" since it saved me from having to go outside to hold the hose or assist in some other mundane task.  Of the neighborhood "help", one man was truly legitimate.  Kevin has since gone on to establish O'Connor Brewing Company.  His brewery took off after we moved away but from what I've seen and heard, it is a success.

Paying homage to Sam Adams- Boston September 2006
Whether we are traveling or dining locally, a menu that includes a wide selection of beers is always popular.  If there is a local beer on tap Glenn is always willing to give it a try.  In Norfolk a favorite restaurant was Cogan's Pizza where beers ranging from local brews to PBR and everything in between was always on tap.  I think it was here that, much to Glenn's delight, I fine tuned my beer preferences and truly started enjoying a wider range of beers.  When visiting family in Maine we discovered St. Andrews Brewing Company, a very local Mid-Coast Maine favorite.  Like many regions in the United States, Maine is home to numerous micro-breweries that offer a variety of unique yet quality beers.

Old school in Copenhagen- July 2012
We don't necessarily plan our vacations around cities that are home to breweries (at least I don't) but we have been known to tour those that fit into our itineraries.  When in Boston we toured the Sam Adams Brewery where we sampled a variety of beers that included Glenn's favorite- the original lager- and his least favorite- the cranberry lambic.  (Sam Adams is such a favorite that we shipped numerous cases to Albania with us and stock up on it whenever we visit an American military commissary.  Glenn doles out these precious bottles selectively so being offered one means you are truly a special guest). A trip to Acadia National Park included a visit to Bar Harbor Brewing Company where blueberry infused beer is on the menu- it was much better than I had anticipated.   A trip to Copenhagen wouldn't have been complete without a stop at the  Carlsberg Brewery where Sidney's response to the thousands of beer bottles on display was to sigh deeply then state "so much beer".  (He is definitely his father's son).

Our move overseas required Glenn to leave his brewing equipment behind.  I think this was the hardest part of our move since Glenn not only enjoys drinking beer but he loves brewing it as well.  Without his equipment he hasn't been able to brew since we have been in Albania- the closest we have come is to attending a raki burning- but he has been able to find beers that are surprisingly good.  We were both shocked to learn that Albania has its share of homegrown breweries.  Our favorite local beer by far is Korce E Zeze (dark Korce) from the Korce Brewery.  While good though, I'm not sure it is in the same league as those from international breweries.

So how is a beer lover to cope?  Unfortunately, most of our travels throughout the Balkans do not provide opportunities for great beer consumption.  Occasionally we will discover something exciting but all too often the import selection revolves around the mass produced American beers we won't even drink when we are back in the U.S.  While we're open to local suggestions, we're realizing that in order to experience really good beers, we must head north.  So it should come as no surprise that upcoming travel plans for the fall include trips to the Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany.  Apparently if we can't bring the beer to us, we'll go to the beer.

Friday, August 24, 2012


So where is home?  For some people this is an easy question with an immediate answer.  To those of us with more nomadic lifestyles, however, is the single question that can bring a conversation to a standstill.  Just yesterday I was asked this question again and as usual, I took pause.  My reply ended up being "its complicated."  Most of the others in the room immediately understood what was meant by my comment as I went on to explain the reasoning behind my response.

Is home the address where I grew up yet haven't live at for over two decades?  Although I don't return there often, when I do, my mother's house immediately brings me back to my adolesence and some of the comforting memories of my teenage years.  Is it the city where I rented my first apartment all on my own?  I lived at too many addresses to count within a ten mile radius before finally settling into the small apartment I still think of as being mine.  (Yes, it was small and quirky but it had a great location and most importantly, it was all mine).  During a recent visit back to the United States I drove by my apartment and was a bit saddened to see someone else's light illuminating the big bay window in the living room.  Is it the Norfolk house where Glenn first introduced me to the fine art of home renovations?  A lot of blood, sweat, tears, and laughter were experienced under that roof. It was the first house we lived in as a married couple and then when baby made three, it became a true family house.  With it finally renovated to our satisfaction (including a large, perfectly designed walk-in closet that never held any of my clothes), we spent a year as landlords from afar before selling it.  Over two years later I still think of that house as our house and that neighborhood as our neighborhood.  Our subsequent neighorhoods and neighbors just have not been the same and I doubt they ever will be.  Is it the townhouse on Bolling Air Force Base where we lived for a very long fourteen months?  Ever the Army brat, Glenn had fond memories of growing up in military housing and assured me I would enjoy our time there.  Despite our waterfront views and our proximity to the best things Washington DC has to offer, I never came to like this home. Maybe it was the too close confines with its galley kitchen, the location of our "well guarded gated community", or the fact that I knew this was truly a temporary home.  Most likely, it was a combination of all of these factors.  This was the first home I was elated to move from.  Is home Tirana, Albania?  Over the past year this chaotic foreign un-European Balkan city has grown on me.  The crazy traffic, polluted air, and neighborhood cows have become a part of my daily life.  Our concrete monstrocity of a house filled with borrowed furniture and lush garden hidden behind the high wall (a concrete one of course) is the place I return to each evening.  Like all of my other homes, this one is also temporary but at the moment, it is mine.

Yes, for me, home is all of these places. It is the small Maine community I grew up in, the Massachusetts city I lived in during both college and my early adult years, and the Virigina city I first lived in with Glenn.  With each consecutive move I've realized that home is where I am at the moment.  The state, zip code, or even country may change but the tangables remain the same.  Whether it be a rented apartment, our own suburban house, or yes, even that dreaded townhome on a military base, at the time it was our home.  With each new house once I unpack our family pictures and put our books on the shelves we are home.  Regardless of the walls that surround us we quickly settle back into our familiar and comfortable routines.  That is until our next move beckons us.  The one constant through all of this, my little family, remains the same. So as long as they are there with me, that will be the place I call home.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Churches of Voskopoja

All roads lead to a church (or the ruins of one) in Voskopoja
Church of St. Nicholas
This past weekend we took our second trip to the village of Voskopoja in Southeastern Albania.  We had visited Voskopoja on a rainy day in May and despite the muddy conditions, enjoyed it tremendously. This past weekend's visit was sunny, dry, and well worth the return trip.

Voskopoja came to prominence during the early 18th century when it was a stop along the Venice to Constantinople (Istanbul) trade route.  During its heyday it was home to twenty-six churches and was the center of Balkan Christianity during the time of Ottoman rule.  Surprisingly enough, Voskopoja was also the largest city in the Balkans with a population of 35,000 residents.  As a testament to the important role church played in the lives of early residents, each of the neighborhoods within the village had two churches and the entire village was home to several basilicas.

A quick look at Voskopoja today does little to reveal how prominent the town once was.  What was once the numerous churches that put the village on the map are now ruins; only a handful of the churches remain standing.   Natural disasters, war, human pillaging, and neglect have left much of Voskopoja a sad shell of what it once was.  Poorly maintained roads snake by both well maintained and neglected private residences.  Several ubiquitous cafes that now make Albania famous line the main street as do signs pointing the way to the numerous tourist houses that now supplement the incomes of the few hundred farmers who call Voskopoja home. Fortunately, a few of the church structures remain and are being maintained and restored by people who are understand the historical significance of the village.

The portico  of the Church of St. Nicholas
Fresco at the Church of St. Nicholas
Interior of the Church of St. Nicholas
One such church is the Church of St. Nicholas.  Built in 1726 as a basilica then later protected during the Communist Era, the church and it grounds have been painstakingly restored.  Our recent visit found both the exterior and interior of the church decorated with tulle buntings and ribbons.  The  interior, filled with richly colored icons and a gilded throne, is perhaps the most ornate interior I have seen in any Albanian church.  The surprisingly elevated and narrow seats make me wonder how even the most average sized person could comfortably worship within the church- but perhaps that is the idea.  (As is the case in most churches and museums, photography is prohibited in an attempt to preserve the interior of the building.  I wish I could have taken pictures since my words cannot capture the true essence of the church).  Within the church's portico is a fresco painted by local artists Kostandin and Athanas Zografi, two brothers from Korce whose artwork was in demand during the 18th Century.

The bell tower at St. Thanas (minus the bell)
On the other side of the village, the Church of St. Thanas is in the midst of a restoration.  When we first visited in May the inside of the church was cluttered with construction debris, the grounds were overgrown with weeds and bushes, and the bell tower was under construction. Our return visit found the interior of the church spartan but cleaned, the grounds bramble free, the bell tower completed.  The fresco gracing the exterior wall of the church has been cleaned, revealing a more vibrant scene than the one on the exterior wall of the Church of St. Nicholas.  As a sad testament to the conditions in Albania, the original bell that once graced the tower, was stolen during the renovations.  While now complete, the bell tower sits empty.

Outside of the village sits the still occupied Monastery of St. Prodhomi.  Like most places we have visited in Albania, getting there was half of the adventure.  We travelled over a narrow cobblestone bridge and up the mountain on a short but rock and pothole filled road before reaching the gated grounds.  (Our trip down the mountain involved sharing the road with numerous circa 1980 Mercedes struggling to clear the protruding rocks).  Built in 1632 and destroyed by at least one fire since then, the interior of the small chapel is filled with ornate fresco and icons.  Annually, a small number of the most devote followers travel to Voskopoja to spend the night on the floor of the chapel.  On a more regular basis, however, local Albanians come here to picnic on the grounds and escape the more oppressive heat of the cities.

Entrance to the Monastery of St. Prodhomi

In recent years Voskopoja has been working to develop its tourism industry.  With the assistance of a dynamic Peace Corp volunteer, their tourist center is working to attract both Albanian and international visitors to their tiny village.  Their efforts seem to be paying off since during our recent visit the churches and village center were filled with visitors.  The preservation and restoration of these amazing churches is a key part of their continued success.  History shows us that people will travel to great lengths to visit historic sites with churches being a major draw.  We originally stumbled upon Voskopoja by chance and within a short period of time returned for another visit.  We witnessed progress and improvements between our first and second visits and this gives me hope that perhaps Voskopoja is moving in the right direction.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Happy Birthday Julia!

Today is Julia Child's birthday.  Had she still been alive, she would have celebrated her centennial birthday today.

When I look back on it, Julia Child was instrumental in inspiring me to get into the kitchen and cook.  My earliest memories of Julia revolve around watching her on our old black and white rabbit eared television creating dishes I couldn't even begin to understand.  Despite my young age, I was mesmerized by her distinctively haughty voice as she instructed us on the finer intricacies of cooking. (This was in the days before the advent of cable television so WGBH was one the four channels our television was capable of receiving).  There was something about watching The French Chef on the fuzzy screen that made me want to cook.  At my young age, none of my dishes would have passed muster with Julia; a particularly memorable pan of taffy like candy comes to mind when I think of my earliest culinary disasters......

Although I didn't know it at the time, Julia was so much more than a cook or a public television personality.  She received a degree from Smith College (which, as a Mount Holyoke College alum, I must say, is nothing to sneeze at).  After graduation she joined the OSS where she met her husband Paul.  Together they travelled the world; he worked for the United States Information Agency and she was an early "trailing spouse."  Her desire to break out of the monotony of her life as a foreign service spouse and find her own identity drove her to enroll in cooking school at the Cordon Bleu during a Paris posting and eventually go on to write her first cookbook.  Settling back in Cambridge, Massachusetts after Paul's retirement, it was then Julia's turn to shine as her culinary career took off with Paul supporting her aspirations and efforts.

In time, Julia Child became an unlikely American icon.  Within the first week of it's opening, I visited the Julia Child Kitchen exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, DC.  During that initial visit there were so many people crowding into the display area that it was virtually impossible to take in the eclectic tools that lined the kitchen's walls.  Visitors included people old enough to remember her show during its original broadcasts and those who only knew of the Julia legend.  I've made several subsequent visits to the exhibit- after all I lived three short Metro stops away from the museum for over a year.  Each time I returned I noticed new details about the kitchen and gadgets that I hadn't remembered from previous trips.  Some items were kitchen classics- her Kitchen Aid stand mixer that inspired generations of brides to add the item to their registries (I did but I also use mine on a weekly basis) while others were obscure- to this day I don't know the purpose of several of the items hanging from those pegged walls.  Simple wire whisks and wooden spoons reiterate the idea that fancy gadgets and appliances while nice, are not necessary for creating memorable cooking.

My interest in Julia never quite matched that of the "other" Julie who became famous for blogging about Julia Child and her voluminous Mastering The Art of French CookingJulie and Julia was one of the few movies I ran out to see when it was released in theaters.  I saw it again when it was released on Netflix.  As it seems to be staple on the AFN movie channel, I have seen reruns more times than I can count.  The story of both Julie Powell the author and Julia Child the chef give me hope that I too, will someday take the plunge and turn my hobby into something that I am passionate about (and pays the bills).

As I have grown older, my love of food and cooking has only increased.  Over time my repertoire has moved far beyond that disastrous taffy incident.  Whether it be pastries, entrees, or appetizers, I love to tweak recipes and make them my own.  I spend hours thinking about the perfect dishes to serve at dinners and receptions.  Experimental dishes are a staple on our weekly dinner menus.  The only limit is the ingredients I can find on the store shelves (which in Albania, is indeed limiting at times).  I find myself subscribing to  numerous cooking magazines and my cookbook shelf has turned into a full bookcase and outgrown its dedicated space in the kitchen.  I love the early Food Network shows, where cooks actually cooked without the competitiveness and drama that dominates today's reality t.v. cooking.  I've spent hours browsing through Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table catalogs, websites, and when accessible, stores, dreaming about the culinary masterpieces I could create.  We may not know what our dream house looks like but I know for sure what the design and layout of the kitchen will be.

Yes, Julia Child inspired me, and millions of others, to go into the kitchen and just cook.  But her inspiration runs much deeper than the pounds of butter she is famous for.  Despite the obstacles placed in her way, she followed her dream.  She fought stereotypes and refused to fit into the mold that was prescribed by the time and her social class.  While finding her own way she supported her husband who in turn, supported her efforts.   And that is truly inspirational.  Thank you and Happy Birthday Julia!

Friday, August 10, 2012


After three wonderful weeks away, I'm returning to Albania.  I know I'm going to have to go through a re-acclimatization period.  It wasn't until I left Albania, the Balkans, and Southeastern Europe altogether, that I realized how much I have missed the little things in life that I used to take for granted.  I've missed the high standard of living that comes from living in a truly westernized society.  Yes things might cost more and we definitely pay more in taxes in the United States, but there is a reward for these higher expenses.  We have the benefit of properly paved and maintained highways, city streets that are marked and easy to navigate, and safe sidewalks.  We have traffic laws that are uniformly and fairly enforced and the vehicles on the road are safe and match the true socio-economic status of their driver rather than being an unaffordable status symbol.

I've missed being able to turn on the kitchen faucet and drink potable water directly from the tap.  I had forgotten how wonderful it is to walk into a restaurant (or store) and have it be truly smoke free. (Restaurants and stores are supposed to be smoke free in Albania but I have yet to find an establishment where this law is consistently enforced).  Just being able to go to a restaurant and order food that isn't Albanian or Italian is something I'll never take for granted again. (My diet for the past three weeks has been a wonderful international smorgasbord).   I had forgotten how wonderful it is to visit a safe and well maintained playground and to just run (barefoot if you like) over vast expanses of green grass.  Lawns and other maintained green spaces are such a rarity in Albania, and if you can find them, you would never dream of taking your shoes off in them.  The sheer joy of Sidney's laughter as he ran across parks and other open expanses throughout Scandinavia was both heartwarming and a bit disheartening. While I know he is now experiencing things a child living in America or Western Europe would never even dream about, I wonder what simple childhood pleasures he is missing out on.  (After seeing all of the bicycles in Copenhagen, he's now asking to ride a bicycle.  While he has one at home, there really isn't a safe place for him to do this since even the "pedestrian only road" in the local (grassless) park is cluttered with speeding vehicles).

I've missed being able to browse through stores and see a wide variety of products.  As a recent foray into a mega-mall demonstrated, I don't need to actually buy anything.  Just being able to look and touch items and know that I could buy them is enough for me.  I've also realized how much I miss driving.  I do drive in Albania but driving there is like driving on a demolition derby course where you never know when the next vehicle, or animal, is going to jump into your path.  The conditions of the roads prohibit driving at a set speed.  I think my favorite part of being back in America has been getting onto the interstate, setting the cruise control and just going for miles and miles.  I've missed the clean air that is virtually impossible to find in Albania.  For the past three weeks I've been sleeping with the windows open so that I can breathe that fresh air.  More than once I've found myself standing still and simply inhaling and absorbing the world around me.

So how am I going to re-acclimatize?  By fighting off jet lag and jumping right in with both feet back into my Albanian life.  Sunday will be spent as a domestic goddess reclaiming my house- laundry, menu planning and grocery shopping are on the agenda.  I'll go to work on Monday morning and cap off the day by attending a reception at the Polish Embassy that evening.  On Wednesday we'll host a small sit down dinner for eight then we're headed out on a road trip into the wilds of Albania next weekend.  I'll be so busy I'll have time for neither jet leg or nor missing the outside world.

Goodbye (for now) America; I will miss you.  Albania here I come again; after I re-acclimatize I will enjoy you again as well.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Oh United Airlines How I Dislike You.........

Oh the joys of air travel.  I used to love flying- the excitement of boarding a flight and taking off for unknown parts.  You could show up at the airport, your loved ones could escort you to the gate, then you and your baggage would arrive at your destination on time.  That isn't the case any more.........between baggage fees, paying extra to reserve a seat, too large people cramming into too small seats, and people who don't realize that body aromas should be minimized before embarking on a journey in a small metal tube (please bathe people!) , air travel has become an unpleasant experience.  It has gotten so bad, that crying babies are the least of our concerns.

I started writing this from Gate C 22 at Dulles International Airport where at the time, I was twelve plus hours into my travels.  After a very long day, I was waiting for my delayed flight to Portland, Maine.  I had left Copenhagen Denmark that morning on what should have been a 1220 flight.  (I had arrived at the airport at 0800 since Glenn and Sidney's flight back to Tirana was much earlier).  Instead of the SAS flight I had expected to be on, we were put on "a very special"- yes, this is a direct quote from the chief steward-- flight that was operated by Euro Atlantic Airlines who in turn was sharing its crew with SAS.  (Prior to this flight I had never heard of Euro Atlantic Airlines and they aren't listed on Star Alliance's roster of code sharing airlines).   We boarded the plane on time but then we just sat there for close to two hours. SAS prides itself on its on time flight arrival record but our delay-- due to food needing to be loaded onto the plane-  did not help their record.

My flight touched down in Washington ten minutes prior to the time my Portland bound flight was scheduled to take off.  I had given up on even making my connection but a gate agent assured me that since my United flight was delayed a half hour, I had plenty of time to make it.  I hoofed it through Passport Control where I was interrogated by an agent who didn't understand why I had been out of the country for so long, waited for my bag to be the last one to appear on the luggage carousal, went through Customs and security screening again then pulled an O. J. Simpson to make it to my distant United gate.  I arrived hot and sweaty but with what should have been ten minutes to spare. I had made it!  Or so I thought..........

In typical United fashion, the flight was delayed yet again and customers were being provided with a variety of excuses.  First we were told the flight was over sold and they were looking for volunteers who would be willing to give up their seat in exchange for a seat on a later flight out of National Airport and a $500 voucher.  (There one taker- who was headed to visit his in-laws- but he wasn't allowed to leave for National until after our flight left).  As the delay kept creeping back in ten minute then twenty minute increments, we were simultaneously told that we were waiting for the plane to arrive, waiting for the crew to arrive, and waiting for the plane to be repaired from an unspecified ailment.  As time ticked away we were all getting conflicting text messages and email updates from the airline.  The man sitting next to me received an email saying the flight would leave Dulles at 1800 and arrive in Portland at 1900 while I received a simultaneous email message saying we were leaving at 1815 and arriving at 1800.  Obviously neither of these scenarios were feasible and we weren't the only ones receiving these messages.

Fellow passengers were getting increasingly irate and the flustered gate agent continued to provide conflicting answers to the barrage of questions that only continued as time passed.  At one point the gate agent fled to find her supervisor (or to escape our ruthless questions). She returned with a supervisor who had a sense of humor and promised not to leave us until we actually boarded the flight and took off (in today's traveling world, there is a distinction between the two).  At one point we were all shuffled down four gates to the location where our new plane was ready to go once our crew arrived.  Again, no formal announcement was made (since the screen was broken at Gate 22???) but with each continuing minute our frustration and sense of humor seemed to increase.  We began sharing travel horror stories- most of which revolved around United's horrible customer service.  The one positive (?) story involved lost luggage than United shuttled four hours into the wilderness for a group of white water rafters.  Unfortunately, when you are flying to a small city, your flight options are limited so United ends up being the airline of "choice" for many of us.

Finally part of our crew arrived to a standing ovation from all of us (the flight officer remained AWOL for an additional twenty minutes).  They were only three hours and a hundred excuses late but they finally arrived.  So to Max the United supervisor and all of my fellow passengers on Saturday night's United Flight 3385 from Dulles to Portland, kudos to all of us for using humor to get through another poor United Airlines customer service incident.

I am happy to report that we all made it to Portland in one piece.  And my luggage arrived with me.  Unfortunately, I get to do this all over again in reverse next week.

Update:  Not everyone is so "fortunate"-  Think link share a far more horrific United experience.  When will the airlines get it together and started remembering that without customers they won't have any business?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Bicycling Through Copenhagen

Just one of hundreds of Copenhagen's bike parking lots
The final leg of our Scandinavian adventure took us to Denmark.  Using Copenhagen as our base we ventured out to Legoland in Billund "because Sidney really wanted to go" and spent one afternoon at Carlsberg Brewery "because Glenn really wanted to."  Both of these trips were fun; its amazing what one can do with those tiny plastic blocks and visiting the most famous brewery in Denmark, one that produces over 3 million bottles of beer a day, is always more interesting when you have a home brewer in your midst.  The best part of our Danish stay, however, was doing like the locals and bicycling through the Copenhagen.

It seems as though everyone in Copenhagen uses bicycles as their preferred mode of transportation.  The International Cycling Union awarded Copenhagen the first Bike City Award and claims that at 1.3 million kilometers per day, the 37 percent of Copenhageners who bicycle daily log more miles than any other city in the world.  There are dedicated bicycle lanes and bicycle traffic signals throughout the City and you can't go more than a block without coming across large bicycle parking lots.  It feels as though bicyclists have the right of way and motorized vehicles and pedestrians need to cede to their oncoming traffic.  During rush hour you see women in their skirts and high heels peddling alongside disheveled students, tourists with maps in hand, and parents with toddlers in tow.  Regardless of your age, size, or medical condition (I saw more than one obviously pregnant women peddling right along with the rest of the crowd), Copenhageners get around on two wheels.   Bicycle Copenhagen, the city's free bicycle borrowing program allows you to pick up bicycles at numerous locations throughout the city and bike to your location.  They make it so easy that there isn't any excuse for not using pedal power to get around.
The boys getting around using pedal power

We joined the locals and rented bicycles from Baisikeli, a company that uses its profits to send refurbished bicycles to Mozambique and Sierra Leone (by renting from them we got our exercise and supported a good cause!).  What they say is true; once you learn to ride a bicycle, getting back on one is easy.  It has been over two decades since either of us rode a bicycle but we quickly got into the rhythm and kept pace with the hundreds of other bicycles speeding along the streets.  On a bicycle, the city just looks different.  We were able to really notice things that you just don't see when you are traveling by car.  We were able to take in the beautiful architecture of some of the city's more historic buildings, feel the bumps of each cobblestone paver on the narrow secondary streets, and easily stop to take in the sights when something looked interesting.  We also discovered how much easier it is to cover more territory on a bicycle than it is when you are on foot.   It definitely didn't hurt that the weather was a perfectly comfortable 70 degrees (the warmest weather we've experienced on our entire trip) and that Copenhagen is a very flat city.

Sidney loved having a front and center view on the world.  He laughed when riding over the aforementioned cobble stones and was able to see so much more from his front row seat.  We peddled through the Copenhagen Citadel, stopped to put our toes in the water at The Little Mermaid, and had lunch at a sidewalk cafe with our bicycles parked nearby.  As is the norm, we also stopped at numerous water fountains and watched the boats in the canal.  (We saw several tour boats, or as Sidney calls them "furgon boats").  All of this was so much easier than it would have been had we needed to find a parking space for our car.

I had forgotten how much fun it is to ride a bicycle.  Sadly, riding a bicycle is neither a safe nor convenient option in Albania, but we are now talking about how we need to buy bicycles when we reach our next post.  Its just another criteria to add to our "must have" list.

Visiting The Little Mermaid