Saturday, October 27, 2012

Czech Check

We recently spent a long weekend exploring the amazing city of Prague, Czech Republic.  Prague was the latest stop on our bucket list of must see European cities and she certainly didn't disappoint.  As has become our custom, Glenn picked our hotel and was once again right on in his choice.  Eschewing our normal habit of staying in small, independently owned hotels, Glenn chose a suite in the Best Western Royal Palace Hotel.  My first reaction upon hearing his hotel selection was to shudder; just the name Best Western makes me think of small dank hotels in questionable neighborhoods.  That however, is purely an American concept.  It turns out that many of the Best Western branded hotels in Europe are very nice places.  Our suite had not one, but two terraces affording us views of both the Vlata River and Stare Mesto and Mala Strana and the Prague Castle.

Our city view
The weather was wonderfully fall like and perfect for roaming the streets playing tourists.  While the air didn't have that "fall in New England" feel that I so miss, the changing leaves and cool evenings were as close to the autumn weather of my childhood as I am going to get this year.  We spent two entire days just wandering without any particular agenda through the narrow streets of Mala Strana (new Prague) and Stare Mesto (old Prague).  We ate, drank, and photographed our way through the City burning off those extra calories by carrying Sidney a good portion of the time.  With the funicular out of serve, we huffed and puffed our way up Petrin Hill with an uncooperative three year old then looked down on all of Prague from the top of Petrin Tower, a miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower.  Despite the overcast skies, the view was amazing.  (My fear of heights kept me from fully appreciating the sights but my two fearless boys completely enjoyed looking down).  Dating back to the 9th Century, Prazsky Hrad (Prague Castle), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the largest castle complex in the world.  We spent time exploring the numerous churches, including the impressive Saint Vitus' Cathedral, tucked away courtyards, and yes, water fountains, contained within the complex. 

A room with a view
Night scene from our window
Crossing the Charles Bridge early on Saturday morning we were treated to spectacular river views and none of the crowds that would clog this pedestrian only area a few hours later.  The Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square is the oldest European clock of its kind and we witnessed several brides and bridegrooms having pictures taken under this iconic site.  The most impressive sight of the entire weekend however, was the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn lighting the square at night.  We first saw the church during the day but looking at it anchoring the square at night was was a totally different experience. I only wish that our pictures could do the scene justice. 

As with all good things, our four days in Prague came to an end too quickly.  Our short stay did serve its purpose of rejuvenating us and providing us with yet another glimpse of Europe's rich culture.  Next up on our international agenda-  Christmas in Bavaria!  If only the next seven weeks will fly by.

Family photograph with Charles Bridge in the background

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Gute Arbeit Lufthansa

I used to love flying but as documented by previous blog entries, the whole experience tends to be a nightmare.  I'm not all negative about all airlines however and my last few flights on Lufthansa have renewed my faith in the fact that flying can be done right.  Maybe it is the inherent efficiency of this German airline; maybe it is the people who work for the company; or perhaps it is the customers who chose the airline. Whatever the reason, I find the flights on this airline to be far more pleasant than any other recent flights.

Despite its European location, flying in and out of Tirana is not always an easy proposition.  With the exception of irregularly scheduled flights on local low-cost airlines, those of us trying to leave the country have few options.  I am eternally grateful that United Airlines does not fly into Tirana.  Even more fortunately, the ill fated Albanian Airlines has gone out of business, saving  all of the flying public from its questionable transportation practices.  Just about every travel destination requires a connection in one of three cities.  Connections through Rome, Italy are on Alitalia, an airline we had the unfortunate experience to fly on during our initial flight to Albania.  Heading north, Vienna, Austria is another option with a nice airport and customer friendly airline but the 0425 flight on Austrian Airlines leaves a lot to be desired.  Lufthansa flights, with connections in Munich, Germany, are by far the most convenient and pleasant means of traveling outside of Albania.

As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. Lufthansa isn't cheap; in fact it is often the most expensive air travel option but in my opinion, it is worth the cost.  Lufthansa, along with a few other major European airlines, still believes in customer service.  Whereas American flagged carriers nickel and dime you for every "amenity", Lufthansa provides these services for free.  You can check a bag, bring aboard a reasonably sized carry-on (I love the fact they actually measure and enforce the size restrictions), and request a blanket and pillow without having to whip out your credit card.  Snacks and beverages are free with good quality wine and beer being a part of the complementary menu.  And yes, these are the amenities provided in the economy class cabin.  On our most recent flight we were greeted at the airplane door with a full sized Toberlone bar.  I mean, how can one not love an airline that provides you with free Swiss chocolate as you board the plane?

Unlike most airlines, Lufthansa seems to genuinely take the needs of children into consideration.  As a parent, it doesn't bother me when other children cry on flights but I find my own child's tantrums intolerable mid-air.  We do our best to keep Sidney amused; our carry-on always holds a variety of favorite snacks, old stand-by toys, and a special surprise to keep Sidney distracted and prevent any spontaneous mid-flight outbursts.  Lufthansa takes that extra much appreciated step by providing free children's entertainment packs for every child.  These gifts aren't fancy; sometimes they are small picture books, a small stuffed toy or other type of game.   Most importantly, each gift includes a small package of gummy bears.  Now I'm not a fan of giving sugary treats to children, but any parent who has flown with a small child understands the importance of swallowing, chewing, or sucking to relieve ear pressure during take offs and landings.  Lufthansa apparently understands this importance too.

Maybe it has been sheer luck, but I have yet to fly on a Lufthansa flight that has been delayed.  (The last time I flew on a United flight the captain actually apologized for the fact that the cabin doors would be closed ON TIME since he was trying to depart ahead of an impending storm.  Really?  Shouldn't we expect on time departures?).  Instead of the multi-zoned, special class pre-boarding process that dominates American flights and seems to do little in terms of improving efficiency, Lufthansa boards their flights by simply announcing that boarding has begun and taking it from there.  On all my flights people have managed to board the planes so efficiently that doors have been closed and the plane ready to push back prior to the scheduled departure times.  (The only snag I have ever witnessed was an outbound flight where an elderly woman had decided to sit in a business class seat that had been assigned to someone else and didn't understand why the flight attendant was insisting that she move to her seat in the back of the plane).

Flying his very own Lufthansa jet
There are some things that airlines just can't control.  They can control neither mother nature nor natural disasters and for the most part they can't control mechanical problems with aircraft.  Unfortunately airlines can't force their passengers to bathe before boarding or educate them against the wisdom of dousing themselves with pungent cologne prior to takeoff.  As I have witnessed on all of my flights flying into Tirana, airlines can ensure people actually stay in their seats until the plane comes to a full stop, cell phones are turned off for the entire flight, and disembarking is as orderly as possible.

See, flying doesn't always have to be a bad experience.  Instead, as travelers we must chose our options wisely.  Instead of the dread I used to feel about an impending flight, my travels with connections in Germany are almost something to look forward to.  Where else can I check a bag for free, get good quality chocolate, and a glass of wine while traveling to another great European destination?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Back to Class

I recently returned to class to improve my ability to speak Albanian.  My goal is to speak better than my three year old.  You would think that after sixteen months of "language immersion" my grasp of the Albanian language would have improved. Not so for me; if anything my ability to speak this difficult language has only gotten worse since we arrived here.  So how has this happened?

Prior to moving to Albania I had the opportunity to spend a total of nine months learning Albanian.  Always the eager student, I was excited to learn that not only was the U.S. Navy going to pay for my language lessons but I would have my own tutor with one-on-one lessons geared towards the vocabulary that I wanted to learn.  Although it was  discouraged by our program, I did have the option of attending class with Glenn.  I opted not to since we are very different students and I really didn't want, or need, to learn the same words and conversational topics that he was required to become proficient in. (Besides, coming off of an eight month deployment that followed a year of ship workups would have just been too much together time for this couple).  Even trying to practice speaking with Glenn at home was painful; he couldn't understand a word I was saying, I would become horribly frustrated and feel like a failure and the pained looks on both of our faces was doing nothing to improve our marriage.

I thought I was prepared for what lay ahead but my mind was literally swimming in confusion after my first afternoon class at ICA.  Not only is it much harder to go back to school as an adult, but four hours of one-on-one language instruction is intense.  Really intense.  In typical Balkan fashion, the Albanian language is unlike any other.  Indo-European with Greek and Latin influences, I found this foreign language with its own alphabet and grammatical cases that don't even exist in English to be a hurdle I could barely cross.  I kept thinking it would get easier but day after day I stumbled to the Metro mentally exhausted and questioning the journey we had embarked upon.  Somehow, as the weeks turned into months I developed my own routine of going to class, caring for an infant who still relied on middle of the night feedings, trying to put dinner on the table each evening, planning my college reunion, preparing to move our family overseas, and yes, doing a bit of studying.  Sometimes I think it is no wonder that I never became as proficient as I had originally imagined I would.

I went through several instructors before I finally found one I clicked with. When we first met, her English was minimal and my Albanian was even less fluent so our class sessions often resembled Pictionary games.  Thanks to the white board, Google Translate and a lot of patience and even more laughs we powered through.  Slowly I reached the point where I could carry on basic conversations. If it involved talking about family, shopping for groceries, or discussing weekend plans, I felt proficient.  Not fluent, but proficient.  I knew my numbers, days of the week, and I could ask for directions.  Listening to news clips on the Internet still left me lost but I could read and understand most news articles.  I assumed that once I arrived in Albania my language skills would only improve.  At least I hoped they would.

Once in Albania I immediately I found out that many people- especially those in Tirana- spoke English.  Their English might not be great but it was better than my Albanian.  English is the common language spoken within the Attache Corp.  Within this international group, those that don't speak English don't speak Albanian either.  Most of the Albanians we socialized with had spent time in the United States which meant their entire families had stronger grasps of English than I did Albanian.  Everyone working at the Embassy is supposed to speak English so my opportunities to speak the language during the work day were limited.  Shopping at local street markets proved challenging since the Albanian dialects were spoken so quickly I just couldn't comprehend what was being said before the conversation moved on.  And I soon found out, there is a big difference between a 40 Leke (40 cents) loaf of bread and a 4000 Leke ($40.00) loaf.

Surprisingly enough, I've found that I must seek out opportunities to speak this country's mother tongue.  Through daily interactions with people in the community I've mastered the pleasantries of greeting and saying good bye to people.  If I think about it in advance I can carry on a basic conversation but if I get asked follow up questions, the conversation quickly grinds to a stop--or switches to English.  In restaurants I will try to order in Albanian but more often than not my requests are met with looks of confusion and a clarification of my order by fingers pointing at the poorly translated English version of the menu.  At the local market I can carry on basic conversations about the weather, fresh produce, and the like but anything more substantive is lost on me.  Our nanny doesn't speak any English and while I can converse enough to discuss Sidney's needs and daily activities, I must rely on my trusty dictionary---and increasingly Sidney himself---for anything more complex.  I am so proud of the fact that Sidney's grasp of Albanian far exceeds mine.  Of course it is a bit embarrassing to have a three year old translate for me.  If nothing else, this is what has inspired me to go back to Albanian class.

So once a week I now sit down with the Embassy's language instructor for an hour of one-on-one Albanian conversation.  We talk about everything- life, family, work, the weather.  Anything that may come up in daily conversation. We discuss what I did during the weekend to practice the past tense.  We talk about upcoming plans to practice the future tense.  After four hour sessions this one hour flies by.  By being forced to speak and think in Albanian I'm realizing that I do know, and remember, more than I give myself credit for.  Maybe something from all of those hours back in Rosslyn has stayed with me after all.  I also realize that I just need to practice.  At a minimum I'm doing this once a week but in reality I need to do this every day.  So watch out Tirana, I'll be speaking more Albanian now.  Please excuse my poorly spoken Albanian.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Do The Right Thing

Character is doing the right thing when nobody's looking
There are too many people who think that the only thing
that's right is to get by, and the only thing that's wrong is 
to get caught.

                ~J.C. Watts

Do the right thing.  It will gratify some people and astonish
the rest.

               ~ Mark Twain

Have the courage to say no.  Have the courage to face the truth.  Do the right thing because it is right.  These are the magic keys to living your life with integrity.

                   ~ W. Clement Stone

I never had a policy; I have just tried to do my very best each and every day.

                   ~Abraham Lincoln

If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don't have integrity, nothing else matters.

                   ~Alan Simpson

Relativity applies to physics, not ethics.

                  ~Albert Einstein

Doing the right thing is not always the popular decision and rarely is it the easy one.  All too often people cave, bury their heads in the sand, and take the easy route out rather than confront the real problem head on.  Unfortunately I witness this every day.  Sometimes the wrongs take the form of what could be perceived as smaller (in)actions; it is the kids at the playground picking on the smaller and more vulnerable children or it is the old man in the grocery store pushing his way to the head of the checkout line.  Other times they are actions that take on a larger meaning. It is the cheating spouse who evicts his wife from their own home and it is the drug dealer selling his product on the street corner.  And it isn't always individuals.  It is companies big and small that don't pay their employees a fair wage, that deny safe working conditions, and stop making deposits into counted upon retirement funds.  And then there is the biggest granddaddy of them all; national governments that bully, bribe, and corrupt their way to making their leaders rich while their people suffer.  

In so many cases it is simply easier to look the other way.  Not addressing the bullying on the playground is easier that taking a personal stake in helping to raise our next generation.  After all, in today's world, it takes a village to raise a child and it should be every one's responsibility to keep all of our children safe. Allowing people to push their way to the head of the checkout line probably seems minor but where does this pushing behavior stop?  When they speed through traffic, double and triple park, or run the red light because they don't thinking the laws apply to them?  We are all busy and often in a rush but the line must be drawn somewhere.  Not obeying, and enforcing the laws, endangers us all.

It is so easy to assume the actions of the adulterers, abusers, and drug pushers have no impact on our own personal lives.  If we blame the victims, decide it is a personal issue, or not our problem we can look the other way with a relatively clear conscience. Yes? Maybe?  No?  We can ignore or simply chose not to think about it.  Large retail discount stores that sell their imported goods for mere pennies must be making a profit.  Isn't it easier to not think about the source of these items and reap the substantial discounts than wonder about the people toiling away assembling these goods?  Corruption at all levels occurs when people put themselves ahead of the cause they are supposed to be serving.  Rather that work to fight the wrongs it is all too often easier (and maybe safer?) to join the wrong doing than it is to take a stand against it.  What does this say about our society?

Does the bully on the playground grow up to be the adult who runs the red lights, takes advantages of his employees and bribes his way into power?  Maybe or maybe not but I doubt adults wake up one day and suddenly display all these bad (and illegal) behaviors.   Behaviors are learned and perpetuated and as citizens of the world, eventually they will affect us at some level.  So where does it end?  If each and every one of us would simply decide to not look the other way, to address the problems as we see them, and confront the wrongs we see, I think we would all be better off as individuals, as society, and as a world.  


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Military Health Risks And How It Can Affect Family Members

My first guest blogger!  This is for my fellow military spouses.  Emily Walsh from the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance is sharing a great piece on some of the long term health risks that affect military members and their families.  

Many people have served their country. Those in the military have gone on to live ordinary lives with their families. There are some health risks that are often involved with being in the military. The stress of dealing with what they had to deal with can lead to PTSD and various other health problems – which can all take a toll on the family.

PTSD, commonly referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is very common among those who have served in the military. It can lead to angry outbursts, pulling away from family members and trouble sleeping. When one member of the family is dealing with such a thing, it affects everyone in the house.

When a family member is experiencing high levels of stress or isn’t getting enough sleep, it can lead to poor performance on the job as well as problems within the house. One of the best measures is to use a paid sick day as a mental health day. This will allow the family member the chance to relax and de-stress from what is going on.

There is no real cure to PTSD. Therapy can be made available to veterans, which can help. Sometimes people just need someone they can talk to – a sympathetic ear. When there are sick days and flexibility in a work schedule to deal with such things, it can be better for the family member dealing with the military health risks as well as all of the other family members.

What starts out as a mental health issue can quickly translate into physical problems as well. When the body starts to experience fatigue, it can lead to getting sick easier as well as neck and back aches. PTSD isn’t the only health risk in the military, however.

Many in the military have been exposed to various chemicals. This includes Agent Orange and even asbestos. Various illnesses have resulted from these exposures. Diabetes, mesothelioma (What is mesothelioma?) and more are now being discovered in veterans who served their country either in the US or overseas. Families need to be understanding to these health problems and make sure that the veteran gets the necessary health attention.

For those who are out of the military and now dealing on their own, it’s important to find a job with some flexibility. Paid days off can go a long way to maintaining a strong level of health. When there are no paid days off, it can lead to not getting the right level of health care. When this happens, it can increase tension at home. Children are not always understanding to why there is anger or stress in the household.

Military families need to look out for each other. There are various health risks involved with being in the military but it’s how they deal with it that matters. Veteran’s assistance and various other things are out there. When the family is sympathetic and there is flexibility in the workplace to get assistance as needed, it yields the best results

Monday, October 8, 2012

Up All Night

I've battled with insomnia for years but in recent months my sleepless nights have increased in both length and frequency.  I've tried all of the conventional remedies for sleeplessness; a dark room, background noise machines, herbal tea before bed, decreased consumption of beverages containing caffeine, and even prescription medicines.  None have ever proven to be effective.  I've learned that stress is my biggest trigger; when I have a lot on my mind I just can't shut off my brain to get a restful night's sleep.  I don't necessarily think I've been more stressed lately, if anything I feel as though I've settled into a comfortable routine, but apparently my subconscious is telling me otherwise.  The irony of insomnia is that the less sleep I get, the more I think about the need to sleep and ergo, the less sleep I get.  As has been the case for the past two decades, I know this phase will eventually pass.  In the meantime, I'm awake a lot at night and have been spending much of this time thinking.

So what does one do when they are wide awake and the rest of the household is sleeping peacefully (ok, they are both snoring but at least they are sleeping)?  First I listen to the sounds of the night.  Our house is surprisingly loud.  At night, the creaks and groans of the house seem to be magnified by the darkness.  Now that the weather has cooled off we have taken to sleeping with our windows open.  I'm learning that our neighborhood is surprisingly loud all night long.  Street dogs bark almost continually and due to the position of our house, the noise from passing vehicles on the main road seems to flow straight into our house.  The other constant is the sound of roosters crowing.  I used to think that these birds only sounded their alarm as the sun rose but Albanian roosters apparently move to their own schedule.  Whether it is two, four, or six in the morning, these roosters are crowing.

After hours of laying awake and thinking about all the things I need to do; tasks for work, tasks for home, menus for approaching dinners,  and holiday travel plans, I eventually break down and get up out of bed.  I usually end up in front of the computer- and if the stars are aligned, our internet connection is up and running (the nights when it isn't working make each passing minute feel like hours).  During our first few months here I used to spend these predawn hours searching the internet for online shopping deals.  I never thought I'd say it but I think I've reached my internet shopping saturation point.  I have now changed my focus.

I now spend my awake hours seeking out new recipes, planning dinner menus, and wondering how I can turn my passion into a career.  I have a fantasy that post-Navy life will find me owning my own bakery and catering company.  Given the economy, the financial considerations for starting a new business, and the need to save for Sidney's college education, this is probably just a pipe dream but it is fun to think about none the less.  (And it helps pass those long nighttime hours).  As a part of my dream, I've decided to put more focus on writing about my food experiences.  As such, I've launched a "sister" blog to this one.  Albania or Bust:  The Food Files, talks about my thoughts regarding shopping, cooking, and eating while living in Albania or where ever our travels take us.  I will continue writing my original blog but hope my new blog will allow me to focus on the nitty-gritty food details that excite me but bore most people.  Blogs are subjective and in many cases self-serving.  While I started this blog to keep my family and friends connected with our Albanian lives, I will be writing my new blog more for me.  I may not be able to currently live out my culinary dreams but I can try to put my thoughts and dreams onto virtual paper.  This project might not help me sleep, but it will at least give me something to show for all of my late night/early morning waking hours.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mind Your Manners

The original etiquette queen
With our entertaining season revving up into full gear, I've been thinking a lot about good manners and proper etiquette.  What is etiquette and what role does it play in our lives?  According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, etiquette is defined as "the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life."   Etiquette may be cultural with what is acceptable in one country not being appropriate in others.  (The proper way to show appreciation for a good meal immediately comes to mind).  Emily Post, the ultimate etiquette guru had a more universal view when she said "manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.  If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."

So what is proper etiquette and manners when living and working in an international community?  Do you adopt the traditions and cultural norms of your current country or do you stay true to the etiquette of your country of origin?  (After all, as Americans here in Albania we represent the United States).  And what exactly are the cultural norms for America?  Are we all as brash and uncultured as many perceive us to be?  Is it acceptable for me to assume that what is an etiquette must for me is the same for others?  I don't know the answers to many of these questions but as an American there are several etiquette pet peeves of mine that I avoid committing at all costs.
  • R.S.V.P.  Yes these four little letters are abbreviated from French for Respondez Si'l Vous Plait.  In practical terms this means let the host know whether or not you will be attending.  Respond as soon as practically possible but no later than the date stated on the invitation. This allows the host to have enough food, chairs, and place settings for all of their guests. Nothing is worse, or more embarrassing, than having to squeeze in additional seats at an already crowded table or having to downsize portions to ensure that each guest has food. 

  • Who is invited?  Unless specified, invitations are not open requests for you to bring your friends, visiting relatives, or even your spouse with you to an event.  Much to my relief, I am not included on many of Glenn's invitations.  I don't take this personally and often welcome the fact I can stay home.  I remember my sister-in-law's horror as my brother started casually inviting people to stop by their formal wedding reception.  (see the R.S.V.P. note above for clarification). If you are in doubt please ask the host for clarification but never assume and just show up with additional "plus ones".

  • Children  I don't have anything against children (I even have one of my own) but unless clearly named, or included in the "and family" catch-phrase, don't assume your children are welcome to attend.  Despite your protests otherwise, your children may not be as well behaved as you claim and many events are just not appropriate venues for children.  I have actually turned someone away who showed up at a clearly adults only formal function with children in tow.  Have someone watch your children or chose to stay home - after submitting your no R.S.V.P. but please do not put the host in the difficult situation of having to ask you and your brood to leave. 

  • What (Not) to Wear  Use your invitation as a cue and if in doubt, ask the host.  Casual, business casual, formal; what does it all mean?  European casual means a jacket and no tie which is a far cry from how we define casual in America.  If unsure, it is always better to be over dressed rather than under.  And for women in particular, don't be afraid to err on the side of conservative.  No one wants to see heaving cleavage or exposed thongs. Under no circumstances are flip flops (rightfully called slippers here in Albania) and cut offs acceptable attire for a formal reception.

  • Arrival and Departure  (This doesn't apply to many parts of the world, but as Americans, I still believe it is important).  Start and end times on an invitation are not arbitrary numbers.  If dinner is to be served at a set time, arriving after the fact is just not good form.  The same goes for departing.  As a guest you should leave long before the waiters start rolling up the table cloths and turning out the lights.  I've found that as Americans we are often the worst offenders and have actually seen the above scenario play out on more than one occasion.  If the host asks you to stay longer then do so but unless the invitation is extended follow the lead of the other guests and depart in a timely manner.

  • Blackberry blackout From the most basic models to the fanciest, all cell phones and Blackberry devices have that little button that silences your phone.  If you are afraid of missing an important call, put your phone on vibrate then excuse yourself from the group before taking the call.  We've hosted too many sit down dinners where cell phones ring then guests proceed to carry on extended conversations of a personal nature right at the table.  What are the rest of the guests supposed to do?  Do we sit in silence and pretend we don't hear anything while you talk or do we ignore the situation and continue on? 

  • Bring a hostess gift  It doesn't have to be ornate or expensive but bringing a small gift is a nice token of appreciation for your host.  Regardless of whether or not they cooked the meal themselves or got it catered time and energy was put into arranging the event.  The gifts I give out range from bottles of wine to mementos from America.  None are fancy but all convey thoughtfulness.  Over the course of the past year I've received my share of hostess gifts ranging from the edible (wines, raki, olive oil, and chocolates) to displayable (porcelain trinket boxes, pottery, and magnets).  The strangest gift I've received was a bottle of SPF 15 sunscreen and a key chain.  I kid you not.

  • Say thank you  Everyone likes to be thanked for their efforts.  For larger events this can be done in person as you depart but for smaller events, or those that are hosted in one's home, a hand written thank you note is the way to go.  (It is also a great excuse to buy pretty cards and accessories at Paper Source).  Thank you notes are not the norm here in Albania but as an American who grew up writing (on paper) a thank you note every Christmas before I was allowed to play with  my gifts, I feel it is the right thing to do.  I try to send a short note to my host within 24 hours of the event; unfortunately I don't always achieve this.  However, late is better than never.  Only this past week I was thanked for sending a thank you note.  The recipient, was apparently surprised by my efforts yet touched that I had taken the time to write.  It makes me think I am one of the few people in Tirana who actually do this.
The above list is by no means exhaustive but are just a few of the quirks that grate on me.  I'm by no means perfect and I know there are things I do that make others cringe but I hope Emily and my grandma would be proud of my efforts.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Knitting for a Cause

Regulation colored caps
I don't consider myself to be a crafty person; my one attempt at scrap booking resulted in a sticky mess that would have embarrassed a pre-schooler.  After years of trying and failing, I've come to terms with the fact that my one crafty outlet is knitting (and yes, this was before the resurgence of knitting as a hipster cool hobby).  I grew up watching my mom knit but first lesson came in first grade when my Brownie troop was making acrylic potholders.  This was in the late 1970s so acrylic, and garishly colored acrylic at that, was all the rage. I'm not sure who thought acrylic was an appropriate fiber to place on a hot object but my little troop toiled away in the school cafeteria learning this ancient craft.  I gradually moved onto scarves which after all, are potholders on steroids.  I continued to knit off and on over the years and with time the sophistication of my projects, both in style and materials, increased.  During college I spent two summers working in a now defunct yarn shop where I became even more proficient in complex designs.  I also spent a ridiculously large portion of my salary on yarn since I learned early on that half of the fun of knitting is buying and collecting yarn for my "stash.   While living in D.C. I discovered the oh so cool Fiber Space yarn shop in Old Town Alexandria where I spent money we didn't have on yarn for future projects.  A few years ago I learned about Ralvery, an on-line database that allows me to keep track of my projects, yarns, and supplies with the click of a mouse.  For a database junkie like myself, this discovery seemed too good to be true.

Two years ago, with my closets crammed full of sweaters I came to the realization that by knitting socks, I could complete projects quickly and that as a project, a pair of socks was a lot more portable than a full sized adult sweater. I personally don't wear socks but my friends and family did so away I went with my knitting until even they were running from my hand knit creations.  In a attempt to find an appreciative audience for my socks, I stumbled across Socks for Soldiers.  This not-for-profit organization that is run out of a single woman's home in Ohio sends hand made regulation socks (and other essential items) to American soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan- or any other location where American troops are deployed.  At last I had found an outlet for my hobby, and vast yarn stash, while supporting a cause (the soldiers, not the war) that is personal.
Colorful socks to brighten up one's day

Like so many organizations these days, Socks for Soldiers is run completely online.  I've never met any of the other knitters and my only contact with them is through occasional updates on their online forum.  By posted comments and email signature lines, I suspect that I am a good two to three decades younger than most of the other knitters, I am one of the few people whose military connections are though an officer rather than enlisted personnel (this is abundantly clear through written comments and asides) and my politics and (lack of) religious views would cause their yarn to jump into knots.  Regardless of these factors, we are all happily supporting a cause that we believe in.  Just like the military, the rules for knitting socks are strict; colors, patterns, and sizes must be uniform and the regulation olive drab knee high socks are tedious to knit.  We are allowed to knit leisure socks which can be brightly colored and fun and this is where I focus most of my energy.  Its fun, it empties my stash (which allows me to replenish) and it supports  those in need.

Since arriving in Albania the pace at which I knit has decreased.  I'm busier than ever and the long hot summers just aren't conducive to sitting around with a pile of wool on your lap.  Without an outgoing mail service sending in my completed projects becomes a project unto itself.  During a recent trip Glenn visited another Embassy that has the ability to ship outgoing packages.  He brought along my most recent pile of completed socks, a year's worth of knitting, and sent them on their way back to the United States. Within a few short months they will be headed back overseas to be worn by some young soldier posted far from home.  These socks may not make a difference in terms of changing the political environment or ending the war, but I hope they remind at least one young man or woman that people back "home" are thinking about them and the sacrifices they are making.  And that is why I do it.