Wednesday, September 26, 2012

(Re)Defining Community

What is a community?  Is it defined by geography, demography, or socio-economics?  Does a community have defined boundaries or is it more organic?  Are there subsets of a community within a larger community?  Can an individual be a part of several communities simultaneously and can these boundaries merge?  Are communities just a figment of our imaginations that are cobbled together for the sake of convenience?

Professionally, and as of late personally, these are questions I ask myself.  My background is in urban planning, community development, and social work.  Through these experiences I've seen a lot.  I've spent close to twenty years working in what I think of as various geographically defined communities- poverty stricken inner city, even poorer rural, and middle class suburbs.  They have typically been defined by governmental entities- city, country, state, and  the U.S. Postal Service. Some of these places are designated "planned" communities while others have expanded or contracted more organically. Sometimes they were ethnically homogeneous and more often than not they been socio-economically they same.  For whatever reason, whether it be circumstance, choice, or a lack there of, these groups of people have come together to form a community.

In Tirana the U.S. Embassy is its own form of a community -- or as I like to say, we are a fishbowl inside of a fishbowl.  We are all here by chance, luck of the draw, or perhaps by choice.  We are temporary residents in a country that is foreign to us.  We are visitors but not permanent residents. Logic might dictate that because of this, we would naturally form our own cohesive community.  I'm not sure this is the case.  Socio-economically we are all essentially the same.  When we work at the Embassy we are all on Uncle Sam's payroll so none of us are going to become rich toiling away in the trenches of Albania.   

But this is where our similarities end. Age-wise we are a more diverse group; some of us may have entered the workforce while our coworkers were still in diapers.  There are Marines here who are young enough to be my children and recently there was another employee who could be my grandfather.  Only half of us are actual government employees, a handful of us are spouses who have managed to secure some form of employment inside the Embassy walls (I count myself as a part of this category), and the rest of us are along for the ride.  We are married, divorced, and single.  Our spouses may be American by birth or foreign born.  We may be childless by choice or not; we may have a single child or a houseful of children.  Our children may be two legged, four legged, or perhaps have no legs at all.  Our religious and political views are probably as varied as the states we call home.  We have varied interests, hobbies, and experiences.  When you look below the surface and beyond the diplomatic plates that grace our cars, we are truly a diverse group.

Because of this, I'm not sure that it makes sense, or is even possible, to assume that we will all merge into a single cohesive community.  Is this good or bad?  I don't know.  But then again, how do you define a community?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Litter Patrol

Part of the area we cleaned up
 Albania has a trash problem.  While this problem is not unique to Albania it is intensified in a country that is so small. You only have to walk or drive down the street to see trash- whether it be household garbage, construction refuse, or cigarette butts, plastic shopping bags, and empty Chipsy containers littering the sides of the roads.  Many locals blame the Roma for "dumpster diving" but the litter extends far beyond the range of the scant number of available dumpsters.  I've heard others blame Italy for all of the trash that washes onto Albania's shores.  (During a trip to Croatia a local blamed Albania for the trash on Croatia's shores).  The option to recycle is another questionable concept here.  When I ask I am told that yes we can but further probing as to what is and isn't recyclable only leaves more questions unanswered.

Litter is a problem on both a micro and macro level.  In our neighborhood alone private citizens are forced to tote their bags of trash up to the main street. For some people this often means carrying your trash for a kilometer or more before coming to a dumpster. It is no wonder that many people dump their trash at the end of our street (and the former location of the neighborhood dumpsters).  The dumpsters were moved farther away from our neighborhood last year after complaints that they were unsightly.  Somehow I would argue that the never ending heap of trash that has taken the place of the dumpsters is even more unsightly.  When branching out into the more heavily pedestrian travelled areas of Tirana (and other Albanian cities) trash receptacles for food wrappers, empty soda cans, and the like are virtually impossible to find. On the rare occasions I have been able to find one it has been so overflowing that I opt to continue to carry my empty container with me to dispose of later. Unfortunately as evidenced by the piles of trash next to the cans, I am in the minority on this.  We've been in places that I consider totally off the beaten path- whether on foot on a hiking trail or on a dirt road that necessitates a 4 x 4 vehicle- and we've come across piles of construction debris or household garbage.  Really people? It obviously took a lot of effort to access these areas and yet you still chose to tote your trash all  the way out here?  On a larger, and perhaps even more disturbing level, roadside ditches, riverbeds, and fields are often overflowing with heaps of trash.  I remember the horror and disappointment I felt on my first drive from the airport when I looked down off of a bridge and into the river below. Instead of seeing water I saw mounds of decaying plastic bags.  All too often I see entire dump trucks emptying entire loads into the rivers and road sides.  I've developed the mantra that in order to enjoy the beauty of Albania I must only look at the horizon and never look down since doing so will more often than not, bring about disappointment.

A cool view (and I managed to crop out the view of the trash)

Trash dumped into Albania's inland waterways doesn't stay there. It flows down the rivers and into the Adriatic Ocean where it pollutes the water, poisons the fish and aqua eco-system, and degrades the otherwise beautiful coastline.  As I mentioned, trash isn't a problem unique to Albania.  In as such, the Ocean Conservancy sponsors an International Coast Clean Up effort every September and this past weekend a group of us from the Embassy volunteered to do our parts to clean up the Albanian coastline.  Tagging onto an effort by a group of local environmentalists who are making a concerted effort to keep the area clean, we headed out to nearby Cape Rodon to spend the day cleaning the shore.

I had never been to Cape Rodon but I was immediately struck by its natural beauty.  Located on a bunker filled tip of peninsula north of Durres, the isolated area is home to the ruins of the Rodon Castle and a tiny, but still active Saint Anthony's Church.  The castle, dating back to 1450 was a part of Skenderbeu's countrywide fortress system.  Today it is but a shadow of its former self with a few remaining walls jutting out into the Adriatic.  Sadly, the amount of trash, mostly plastic bottles but also Styrofoam, plastic bags, and glass shards almost obliterates the area's beauty.  Our group spent several hours filling countless bags with the debris surrounding the castle ruins yet our efforts hardly put a dent in the mass of litter.  The beachfront area near the church fared slightly better.  Perhaps it is because there are fewer rocks and crags for trash to collect in.  Maybe it is because this area is a bit more accessible (we had to hike into the area of the castle and haul all of our collected trash out). For whatever reason this area looked noticeably better because of our efforts.  Of course, with tides carrying a seemingly endless supply of fresh plastic debris towards the beach, I doubt the small area remained clean for long.

Sadly, all of the beach cleaning efforts in the world aren't going to put a stop to the trash problem until the source of the trash is eliminated (And no, the recent proposal to import trash from other countries is not a good idea).  Albanians, and everyone else who is an offender, need to stop dumping trash along roads, waterways, and in any other place it is deemed convenient.  Individuals need to take ownership of their own trash and municipalities and the Government of Albania need to develop measures to properly dispose of their waste.  No matter how much Albania tries to market itself to the rest of the world, if the country is covered in trash, no one will want to come here.

Just because I think this is a pretty scene and speaks to the beauty of Albania

Friday, September 21, 2012

You've Got Mail (Or Not)

In college it was the little yellow slip of paper tucked into the mailbox in the basement mailroom of the campus center.  Here it is the new email that arrives in your in box each Monday and Thursday afternoon signaling that the plane arrived with the pouches.  Both notifications- sent twenty plus years apart, indicate the same thing.  I have a package waiting to be picked up. Some things never change; the excitement is the same for me.  In both cases I rush to the mailroom and stand in line to sign for my precious new arrivals.

More often than not, in college that package was a box filled with quirky items sent from my mom. Home baked goodies, a trinket picked up during her travels, or even a bottle of shampoo, it was all exciting.  In reality the contents of the package didn't matter since it was the thought and connection with the outside world that was really important.  Today the arrival of mail is still my connection with the outside world.  I may have purchased the contents myself and more often than not, the package consists of diapers, toys, and other Sidney centered items, but it doesn't matter.  It is still a connection to the world outside of Albania.  Here we rely on our mail arriving twice a week via diplomatic pouch. This is on a good week.  On a bad week it might not arrive at all; or  as was the case last fall, it might not arrive for six weeks. Yup, no mail for a full six weeks.  Talk about a let down.

Then as in now, not receiving a package on mail day is disappointing.  Back then, peering into the mailbox and seeing nothing but an empty metal abyss was a sure disappointment.  It was even more so when everyone around me received something.  Now when that email arrives in my inbox I immediately scan the list to see if I am one of the lucky ones who gets to rush to the mailroom and stand in line.  Perhaps what is even more disappointing is when the email comes out saying that no mail arrived today.  Or this week for that matter.  Such has been the case of late.  I envision my packages piling up in a warehouse in Dulles, Virginia just waiting to be shipped overseas.....

I'm sure all this sounds silly to most people. But for those of us who rely on these little pick-me-ups to make it through those not so easy weeks (after all running to Target is not an option), not getting my mail is disappointing. It is more than the ball dress not arriving before the ball, the Halloween candy arriving the day after the holiday, or the medicine not getting here before the next illness hits.  It is a lack of a tangible connection with the outside world.

This has been a week when I really wanted to receive my mail.  I've been bracing myself for it but I'm fearful that we are entering another long period without any mail.  Yes I know I will survive without them but life would be so much easier if my incoming boxes would hurry up and arrive.  I just want to open my inbox on Monday and see those magical words:  you have mail.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Visit to the Black Caves

Looking in
I am not what you would consider an outdoorsy type of person; while I appreciate Mother Nature and all of her beauty, my fear of reptiles, bugs, and the like limits how adventurous I am when picking outdoor activities.  After a trip to Theth earlier this summer I had pretty much decided that future hiking adventures would not be a part of my travel plans for the remainder of our time in Albania.  So it was with a bit of trepidation (and after I had been assured numerous times by our guide that we would not encounter any snakes) that I set off on a short hike to Pellumbus Caves with a group of people from the Embassy.  Like so many of the other things I have been hesitant to do, I am so glad that I took the plunge and did it.

Pellumbus Caves, the Black Caves of Pellumbus, or Shpelle e Zeze are located a short distance outside of Tirana yet feel like they are a world away.  Considered to be one of Albania’s great archaeological treasures, the earliest residents of the caves were prehistoric bears whose skeletal remains were found to date back as far as 400,000 years. Later the caves were inhabited by humans and were one of the earliest pre-historic settlements in the region.  Archaeologists have uncovered numerous artifacts dating from the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages. Yes, this area puts a whole new meaning on the term old.

The view along the way
After a bumpy ride on a rickety furgon, we trekked up the mountain towards the cave. Under the able leadership of our guide-- who also carried a picnic lunch for our entire group of thirty himself-- we walked out of the village of Pellumbus, past a small farm, and up into the hills.  Over the course of the two kilometer climb to the caves we encountered a variety of terrains.  At various times the path was hard packed dirt, then boulders, and even wooden steps with a handrail.  Thanks to the efforts of Outdoor Albania, the entire trail was well maintained with a smattering of benches and signage in both Albanian and English reminding us not to litter.  The higher we climbed, the more impressive the views.  With the Erzen River Canyon below us we climbed a total of 350 meters in elevation before reaching the caves.  And the caves were so cool.

Unlike the commercialized caves I have visited in the past- those with well lit walkways, handrails,  and narrated guideposts, these caves were just that.  Caves.  They measure approximately 360 meters in length and range between 10 to 15 meters in width and 15 to 45 meters in height.  And they are dark. So dark that even our thirty flashlights barely illuminated the ground in front of us.  Following our guide's instructions of where to walk (on misstep could land you in a hole or a slick pool of mud) we travelled through a series of "hallways" and "rooms" with each one being larger than the last.  Stalactites and stalagmites filled the floors and ceilings of the caves with the eerie sound of bats and our own voices echoing off of the walls.  Did I mention that it was dark?  At one point we all stood still and turned off our flashlights and listened as the dark silence (and squeaking bats) enveloped us.

Looking out
My words, and pictures, do not adequately describe my experience.  It was just such a cool experience.  Even when the mud literally sucked the shoes off of my feet (I had stood still too long in one spot), I just laughed and chalked it up to the experience.  Glenn wasn't able to join us for the trip and now he wants me to take him back.  I'd actually be game to do it again but would want to go in a group. After all, if thirty flashlights cast such a small pool of light I don't even want to think about how little illumination would come out of only two.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

It has been a rough week.  As an American, the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks hung a dark cloud over our heads.  Regardless of how detached you may be from the actual events, it is virtually impossible to not think about the horrific events that took place and the thousands of innocent lives that we lost in the name of.......of what exactly?  God? Allah?  American idealism?  Freedom?  The greater good?  I don't know, and I can't even begin to understand.  Little did I know that Tuesday morning would just be the beginning of a long and emotionally charged week.

Also on September 11th, a U.S. Ambassador and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi, Libya.  I may not have known any of the people directly involved in yet another senseless tragedy but by virtue of being posted at another American Embassy, this attack hits all too close to home.  I may be living in a country where Americans are for the most part, liked if not adored, but that does not make us immune to the possibility of danger and terrorist threats.  Watching co-workers who had direct connections to the Consulate in question was agonizing as was hearing the international media report- and more often than not- speculate as what had actually happened.

I had awoken the morning of the 12th blissfully unaware of the tragedy unfolding in Libya and Egypt but haunted by the sights of the Ann Curry's report on Syrian refugees from the previous night's NBC evening news.  (Thanks to AFN, we receive our daily dose of main stream American news reporting twelve hours after the fact).  Reporting from Jordan her report illustrated the true human cost of the world atrocities currently raging across the globe. The images of young children, women, and the elderly, battered, bruised, and critically wounded as they poured into overcrowded refugee camps clearly showed me the ugly side of humanity.  Little did I know at the time, it also set the tone for the rest of the day.

While all of these world events were unfolding I was learning about a much more personal and closer to home tragedy.  Hearing the horror story of a friend who was fleeing an abusive marriage was both scary and emotionally draining.  It reminded me that regardless of our nationality, educational level, or socio-economic status, none of us are immune to the horrors of the world both abroad and in our very own homes.  

Like so many other tragedies that affect the world, they become politicized.  The death of diplomats abroad has become fodder for both political parties as each criticizes the other for what they may have said or done or not said or not done in response to these atrocities.  Unfortunately, such political and ideological attacks are not uncommon. All too often it is easier to blame the opponent for actions that are likely beyond their control than it is to look critically at what we (as individuals, a country, society, world, etc) have done to bring about such events.  On a micro and macro level, this is all such a sad state of affairs. 

Life is not all doom and gloom however.  The weather today in Tirana is so perfectly crisp and fall like that, when walking to a meeting, I had an extra bounce in my step. I took my time and appreciated how lucky I was to be able to freely walk down the street. Not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to enjoy such a simple pleasure.  When I returned home yesterday I was heartened to see Sidney's little blond head running down the street as he participated in a lively game of street football with other boys in the neighborhood.  Although he was by far the youngest, he was welcomed with open arms into their raggle-taggle group of Albanians.  Perhaps if children ruled the world all of the ugliness and conflict would disappear.  I know that tonight I will be safe in my own violence free home with my husband and son.  As a family we will eat and play together while sharing the individual adventures of our day.  I do not live in fear of violence within my home and know that we are raising Sidney in a caring respectful environment. 

Yes, life isn't always easy, pretty, or kind.  Despite this, there is hope.  I hope that someday we can all just get along.  We may never agree on such hot button issues as politics or religion but we can still be respectful of one another and our individual views.  There is a lot to be said for kindness and understanding. I keep coming back to the image of Sidney playing on various playgrounds throughout our European travels.  Regardless of the country we are in or the languages spoken, he never has any problem jumping right in and playing along with the other children.  If children can do this, why can't adults?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Never Forget

Like most Americans, I clearly remember where I was on this early fall morning eleven years ago.  Like my parents when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and my grandparents when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, September 11, 2001 will be a day I never forget.  And it is important that none of us ever forget. 

Whether we lost loved ones and friends or watched the tragic events unfold from afar, as Americans we were all profoundly affected by the high jacking and subsequent crashing of four American jetliners.  On that morning my sense of security was unhinged in a way I never thought was possible.  In the days immediately following that Tuesday morning, American patriotism emerged in full force.  Flags flew from every flag pole, street corner, and yes, vehicle, as the country united behind a common cause.  As numb as I was at the time, I was profoundly proud of my fellow countrymen (and women) as we quietly rallied around one another and entered into a new level of civility. 

Eleven years later much has changed.  The civility that marked those first few horrible months has been replaced with widespread mudslinging, partisan accusations, and a general sense of discontent.  Our economy is in shambles yet if you listen to the sound bites everyone else is to blame.  Support for the war that is still raging in the Middle East is waning and with it, support for our troops who continue to be on the front lines on a daily basis.  To me, it is sad that as a society, we have so quickly gone from being united to being so fragmented.

If the chatter amongst my various Facebook groups is any indication (and yes, as of late this is my barometer of what is going on in the outside world), September 11 remembrance ceremonies are very low key this year.  Here in Tirana the U.S. Embassy held a short ceremony and moment of silence this morning to mark the 11th anniversary of September 11th.  (As far as I can tell the timing of the remembrance had no significance in terms of the actual event and the turnout from Embassy personnel seemed much lower than that of last year). This afternoon I paused for my own moment of silence that coincided with the original East Coast times when the horrors first began to unfold. 

I used my personal moment of silence to reflect on the world around me.  I fear that we are forgetting how human behavior and actions shaped the days, months, and years leading up to the terrorist attack and how these same behaviors and actions shaped the aftermath.  We owe it to those who perished on September 11th, and the thousands of Americans who have since died fighting the War on Terror, to never forget their sacrifices.  So thank you to the men and women, both in uniform and out, who are serving our country at home and abroad.  Individuals, families, mothers, fathers, and children who weren't born eleven years ago all share in making these sacrifices.

P.S.  I want to extend an additional message to our small American military family here in Albania.  Our numbers may be low but our presence and accomplishments are strong.  No one may have thanked you recently for your continued service to our country.  I thank you and want to know that your service does not go unrecognized.  I for one, will never forget.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Under the Shadow of Vesuvius

Just one of the city's meandering roads
Last weekend we visited the ruins of Pompeii.  Since elementary school I had been reading about the ancient city's tragic fate and I had always wondered about a place that just seemed so far off and mysterious.  Being that this was our fourth trip to Italy in the past year, we decided it was time to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site receiving 2,500,000 visitors a year and see it for ourselves.

Petrified remains; human and other
The demise of ancient Pompeii came about with the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius on 24 August 79 AD.  (Yes, this is ancient history).  Over the course of three days, between thirteen to twenty feet of ash and pumice from the erupting volcano buried everything that laid in its path of destruction.  Buildings, humans, and animals and all of their accompanying accessories were petrified where they stood and lay undiscovered and undisturbed for close to 1700 years.

Prior to its destruction, Pompeii was a city covering over 160 acres with a population of approximately 20,000 inhabitants that was still recovering and rebuilding from an earthquake that had destroyed parts of the city close to twenty years before.  Its economy was largely agricultural but Pompeii was also a vacation destination for wealthy Romans.  Located much closer to the sea at the time it was by all accounts a thriving part of Italy's Campania region.

I just love these
Portions of the buried city were first uncovered in 1599 and excavations have been continuing ever since.  While parts of the ruined city remain buried and untouched, what is believed to be the majority of the preserved ruins are open for viewing with more opening to the public each year.  I thought I knew what to expect when visiting but in reality, I was unprepared for the expansive awesomeness of Pompeii.

Evidence of the city's successful heyday is clearly shown in the excavated ruins.  We visited on a relatively cool and cloudy day which worked to our advantage both in terms of thin crowds who might have been deterred by the weather and the sun since there is essentially no natural shade in Pompeii.  We spent several hours roaming through well-worn narrow cobblestone streets and brick ruins, viewing amazingly well preserved frescoes, and since Sidney was us, splashing in muddy puddles and sampling from corner water fountains.  Wandering past the remnants of what had once been shops I wondered about the goods that might have been sold there.  Standing in the shadow of the Edifici Amministrazione Pubblica I wondered about the judges who once ruled on court cases in these impressive confines.  Climbing the steps in the Teatre Grande I thought about the groups that had gathered in this grand amphitheater.  Viewing a well-preserved but spartan kitchen I wondered about the meals that were created within its confines.

Because of my love of all things history I always appreciate the historical significance of all of the ancient sites we visit.  The sheer will, hard work, and determination that went into erecting these buildings, streets, and cities long before the advent of heavy machinery and equipment that today makes such feats easy.  How long must it have taken to place each stone and brick in place?  (The fact that Pompeii was still recovering from an earthquake twenty years after the fact speaks directly to this difficulty).  Beyond the architecture and infrastructure, however, I wonder about the people who walked, worked, and lived within this ancient city.  Regardless of one's socio-economic class, life would not have been easy by today's standards.  Take the aforementioned kitchen for example; cooking the simplest of meals must have been such a tedious task.  Given the hard sharp edges of the buildings and streets, I wondered where the children played.  Did their mothers worry about cuts and bruises as much as I did while we were there?  (As if to put my worries to a test, Sidney experienced his own share of falls and scrapes during our visit).  While it is not possible, I would love to be able to spend just one day walking in the footsteps of one of Pompeii's (or any ancient civilization for that matter) citizens.

Our visit to Pompeii was memorable and should be a definite stop on everyone's travel itinerary through the Campania region of Italy. There is a reason that Pompeii has been a tourist destination for over 250 years, was included as part of the traditional Grand Tour of Europe and still attracts so many visitors each year.  If you get a chance to go, do it.  You won't regret it.

The Temple of Jupiter with Mt Vesuvius looming in the background

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Going Ashore With the Teeming Masses

Welcome to Italy
Last week we took a quick weekend trip to Naples and Pompeii Italy.  As we have done twice before, we took the overnight car ferry from Durres, Albania to Bari, Italy.  I'm not a fan of this method of travel but taking our car allows us to shop at the U.S. Naval Base in Naples and stock up on those "must have" items that we can't get shipped to us via the pouch.

When it is on schedule, the Adria Ferry departs Durres at 2300 and arrives in Bari the next morning at 0800.  The Port of Durres has improved greatly over the past year; what were rutted dirt parking lots and ramshackle ticket booths a year ago has been replaced with pavement, permanent sales buildings, and secure customs booths.  However, some things don't change.  Signage is still lacking and street lights are non-existent.  Being the good American doobies we are, we arrived at the terminal at the designated time of two hours prior to departure.  We were the first ones there and ergo our automobile was the first one loaded onto the very large, filled to capacity ferry.  On our past trips cars have been backed onto the ferry which allows for a speedier and safer departure on the other side of the sea.  This time they had us drive straight in.  Our "deluxe" stateroom had a small window, three bunk beds with the thinnest mattresses I have ever seen, and our very own, all-in-one toilet, sink, shower room (a.k.a. as the bathroom).  Despite the humming of the engines and the diesel fumes that permeated the air (these smells brought Glenn back to his deployment days) we all slept relatively well and awoke the next morning ready to take on Italy.

Our approach to the Port of Bari was calm and the ferry was on time.  We naively thought we'd be off the boat within a hour and then be on our way across the "ankle" of Italy to our destination.  How wrong we were. The port was especially busy on this particular morning with four large car ferries arriving within minutes of each other.  Of course ours was the last to arrive and we pulled up to a middle berth.  Immediately we saw the chaos that was going to ensue.

The ferry
As if on cue, all four ferries began disembarking passengers and vehicles simultaneously.  Only drivers are allowed in the vehicle holds so thousands of people toting luggage, pets, and small children milled around the edges of the piers.  Buses and tractor trailers backed out of the ferries and into the teeming human masses.  Bewildered passengers with luggage in tow walked aimlessly between vehicles looking for either the pedestrian terminal and public transportation or their own personal vehicles.  Cars stopped mid-ramp or mid-travel lane to allow their passengers to get in.  And each and every vehicle, whether driving in reverse or front facing needed to take a left turn in order to get off of the boat.  Needless to say, no one, whether on foot or by car, was getting any place fast.  Mediterranean machismo tempers flared and car horns blared.  Pedestrians ignored the few poor Port Authority employees who were half heartily attempting to direct traffic.  As time crept by and no progress was being made, the situation only got worse.  Drivers were getting out of cars to yell at the people in front of them who were also stuck in the non-moving traffic.  More than one smoking and sauntering man was nearly run over by backwards moving buses.  (Somehow this became the drivers' faults; I don't know about you but regardless of who has the right of way, I cede to larger on coming vehicles). Those vehicles that were fortunate enough to snake towards the immigration booths were stymied by only having two agents on duty.  We just gave up and waited as patiently as possible off to the side of the chaos. (This isn't always easy when you have already had a long, sleepless night).  There wasn't any point in Glenn's trying to get to our car since he would either be fumigated by the carbon monoxide that filled the ferry's vehicle hold or deafened by the echoing horn honks.  Really people, if cars are already log jammed, laying on your horn is not going to get them to move!

We experienced this on a single morning but this scene is replicated every day of the year.  I can't imagine the dread that port employees, immigration agents, and general laborers must feel (or should feel) when they see these ferries pulling in each morning.  The chaos is unbelievable and could so easily be eased with a few modifications.  Ferry arrival times could be staggered so only one ferry arrives at a time; ferries could tie up the piers in an order that would ease traffic flow; traffic and pedestrian laws could be enforced ensuring a safer and easier departure for all parties; immigration lines could be actual well marked lanes that are easy to understand.  Any of these simple measures could make this experience less dreadful.  Port management could take some cues from the management of German or Scandinavian port management; these Italian-Albanian behaviors would not be tolerated outside of the Mediterranean.  

Just when I think the ferry experience will not be that bad, it is.  Glenn is already talking about a return trip.  This time he is proposing that we visit a more northern area of Italy.  Unfortunately the ferry ride to the port of Ancona would be hours longer and I seriously doubt their conditions would be any better.  So here is the conundrum:  my love of Italy and all she holds vs the pain, agony, and chaos of dealing with the ports.  (Seriously, ferry travel in Southern Europe makes passing through TSA security seem like a breeze).  Less than one week out, I'm not willing to make the sacrifice.  Ask me again in a few months, and I'm sure Italy will be calling again. Without a doubt I know I will be going back...........

Monday, September 3, 2012

Greener Pastures

After many weeks in transit (such is life when you rely on the diplomatic pouch to deliver your mail), my beloved Alumnae Quarterly Magazine arrived this past week.  As I have for each edition over the past twenty-one years, I quickly skim through the feature articles and then turn to the class notes section. Here alumnae from ages twenty-one to ninety-one (and sometimes older) write in and share updates on their post college lives.

As a student I would read the class notes with both admiration and wonder.  At the young age of eighteen, everyone was older and in pouring over the minute details of each class's entry I felt as though I had a glimpse of what the future held for me.  Through my young and so naive lens it seemed as though all of the retired alums were leading exciting lives filled with exotic travel, loving families, and Mount Holyoke friends dating back to their first moments on campus.  The next generation of younger alums were juggling adoring families and satisfying careers and proving that yes, you really can have it all.  The most recent alums seemed so carefree as they settled into new cities, new careers, and new relationships.  In many respects these entries read like college life without all of the homework.  It all seemed so wonderful.

When I graduated and joined the alumnae ranks I faced a harsh reality.  Life was hard.  Sharing a house with one bathroom and two other women while juggling two jobs to pay the rent and wasn't as glamorous as I had imagined.  Never was there mention on those pages of finding meaningful work, paying off student loans, and the loneliness that exists when all your close friends are scattered across the country (this was a time when email was in its infancy and the whole idea of Facebook would have been unimaginable).  I experienced neither that close camaraderie nor fulfilling work that seemed to fill the Alumnae Quarterly pages.  I found myself reexamining the words behind the text for clues that others might be feeling the disenchantment that filled my thoughts.  Were my classmates and contemporaries as enthused and fulfilled by their life choices as their entries made them seem?  Was I the only one missing out on this excitement?  With each update came news of promotions, engagements, and eventually babies.  Rarely was there mention of career letdowns or failed relationships.  Unknowingly I found myself falling into a predictable quarterly cycle.  Each set of updates brought me inspiration and pride - after all my fellow alumnae were doing amazing things both professionally and personally- then self-disappointment and regret.  I wondered how did I even get accepted into a college that managed to produce so many successful women.  Was everyone as successful as the Alumnae Association made them out to be?  
Today as my friends and I hover on the brink of a new decade, our place on the magazine's pages has crept from the very end to someplace in the middle.  I still rush to read the class notes section but my interpretation of the words is much different than it was two decades or even two years ago.  Reading between the lines I see that life isn't nearly as easy or happy as my eighteen year old self imagined it would be.  Amongst us there are (re)marriages, divorces, long term partnerships, and long term singlehood.  We may be professionally happy, dissatisfied, and/or caught in a limbo somewhere between the two.  Through circumstance there may be children of the two, four, or no legged variety or there may be no offspring at all.  Increasingly we are facing the challenge of caring for ourselves, our children, and our aging parents.  Many of us have jumped off of the career path altogether and are finding our personal satisfaction through a variety of non-career options (I don't remember anyone ever talking about this even being an option when I was in college).  If there is one thing that age and experience has taught me, things are never as simple as the black and white pages make them out to be.

The Laurel Parade circa 1900
Last month I submitted my own infrequent update to the Quarterly. I talked about summer travel with my family, reconnecting with old college friends during a brief visit back to the States, and living and working abroad in Albania.  As I hit the send button I thought it was a perfectly appropriate, very MHC, snapshot of my life.  After my message went out into cyberspace I thought about what else I could have written.  I could have mentioned that my job is part time and not in a career field I would have ever chosen.  That I am here because of my husband's career and in the Embassy world am referred to as an "eligible family member" (Now isn't that a welcoming and empowering term?).  I omitted the fact that while I do live in Europe, Albania is European in name only and many of the conditions here rival those of a third world country.  I'm not laying out these thoughts in an attempt at garnering pity; rather I'm pointing out that there is always more than one side to every story. What looks glamorous and wonderful from the outside could be completely the opposite from the inside.  What is said is just as important as what is left unsaid. 

I wish someone had imparted this wisdom on me this all those years ago.  Every time I pick up the Quarterly I am immensely proud of the women whose stories are shared on its pages.  Collectively we are an impressive group of women.  We are leaders in business, education, the world, and in the home.  Individually our lives teach the lesson that, whether it be personally, professionally, or both, each of us make important contributions to our worlds.  The few hundred words that summarize our activities in each magazine do not even begin to share the depth of our experiences.

The Laurel Parade circa 2010
Here is a promise to myself; the next time I make a Quarterly submission I will be more honest. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all a part of realty.  Life isn't always an easy and we owe it to ourselves and each other to be honest.  Maybe then an eighteen year old sitting in her dorm room on an idyllic New England college campus will realize that there is more to life than the story the black and white words on the page in front of her project.  And that is a good thing.