Friday, November 30, 2012

Whew, I Made It!

Yes I did.  In my first attempt at NaBloPoMo, a challenge to blog every day during the month of November, I made it. Between this blog and my related food blog, I managed to post an entry on each and every one of November's 30 days. 

For the first few days it wasn't easy.  The beginning of the month was very busy with work and personal commitments taking up a big chunk of my time.  Instead of spontaneously writing whenever the mood struck me, I had to make a conscious effort to sit down in front of the computer and write.  But after day five something amazing happened. I found my rythm and suddenly sitting down to write each day was not only easy but it was something I looked forward to.  Granted most of my actual writing took place during the dark early morning or late night hours of the day while the rest of the house was still sleeping.  That was OK, however.  What was really important was that I was accomplishing what I had wanted the most:  carving out dedicated time for myself doing one of the things I love the most.

When I entered into this challenge I wondered whether or not I would have enough to say.  I think I was initially too worried about this which, ironically enough, created a writer's block during the first week.  Once I got over this hurdle the words and thoughts just flowed.  And appparently I did have plenty to say.  This shouldn't surprise people who know me since after all I am a talker, I am opinionated, and I love to share my opinions with others.  After all, isn't that what blogging is all about?

Writing over this past month has been liberating.  My posts have ranged from commentary on current affairs, pet peeves that get my blood boiling, travel to new places, causes that are deeply personal, and of course, favorite recipes.  With increased posts comes increased exposure.  I've gained new readers who have engaged me in though provoking conversations.  In turn I've discovered new bloggers who have expanded my own world.  (As a participant in NaBloPoMo we are asked to also read a handful of new blogs each day).  My comments have offended some people but I take the good with the bad and while I try to be considerate of other's feelings, I make no apologies for my thoughts.  From the serious to the humorous and everything in between, my blogs covered it all.

Thirty days ago when I entered into this challenge I questioned my ability to stick to it.  Ironically as I sit here on the final day I realize that I have more thoughts than there were days in the month.  So what does this mean?  I guess I need to continue with NaBloPoMo for the month of December.  Yes, given the numerous holiday celebrations, daily life and planned travel, it will be even more of a challenge but I'm up for it.  They say it takes two weeks for something to become a habit.  Daily blogging has become such an important part of each day that I can't give it up.  So here's to another thirty-one days of entries. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Happy Anniversary Albania!

Today is the 100th Anniversary of Albania's independence from the Ottoman Empire.  Countries like the United States, who reached this milestone long before Albania's independence, can be considered the matriarchs of the world while and others, such as Croatia, Slovenia, and other former Yugoslav Republics who just passed their twenty-year birthdays are mere babies.  At 100, Albania lies somewhere in between but what a varied and tumultuous century it has been.

Independent of the Ottomans, Albania still spent the next several decades occupied at various times by the Greeks, Bulgarians, and Serbs and then spent close to a decade as the Kingdom of Albania.  World War II brought about toying with Fascism, and an occupation by Italy followed by the slide into Communism and the beginning of Enver Hoxha's forty plus year reign as this tiny country's leader.  Under Hoxha, Albania was allied at various times with the U.S.S.R., China, and finally no one as they entered into an extended period of self-imposed isolationism.  Albania might geographically be located in Europe but by closing her borders to the rest of the world, time passed this country by.

When Albania finally rejoined the rest of the western world in the spring of 1991, she had decades of lost time to make up for.  Socially, developmentally, and physically Albania lagged far behind her Eastern European and even Balkan counterparts.  (Some would argue that there just isn't a country that is comparable to Albania).  Like any emerging democracy, Albania has experienced her own share of growing pains over the past twenty years; failed pyramid schemes, intensifying partisan politics, failing infrastructure, rampant corruption, and a lack of rule of law have hindered Albania's modernization all while making this unique country what it is today.  This is truly a wild place where some days I love being here and others I find myself counting down until I can leave.  For me, this is definitely a place of extremes.  Throughout all of this, however, individual Albanians have an intense sense of national pride that has only been intensified over the past few months.

Tirana International Hotel
Albania has been gearing up for this celebration all year but things have really taken off over the past few weeks. New patriotic monuments have popped up in parks and squares, Albanian flags wave from every window and moving vehicle, and red and black swags cover every electrical wire and telephone pole in sight.  The Parliament Building and Tirana International Hotel (the original Communist hotel in Albania) are both draped in building sized flags which given their massive sizes, is no small feat.  Concerts, traditional dance exhibitions, celebratory receptions, and a grand parade down the main boulevard are all a part of the planned festivities--as is a Guinness Book of World Record's attempt at constructing the largest outdoor cake.  And of course this wouldn't be an Albanian celebration without a lot of fireworks.  In a country where national pride runs deep every day of the year, today is an over the top celebration.  The less is more concept has escaped Albania but they do after all, have a lot of celebrate. In many ways, this is truly a once in a lifetime celebration.  And all of this, exemplifies what Albania is today.

Skenderbeg Square- Tirana

Patriotic youth

Pride in the countryside

Flags a flying

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Black Friday and Cyber Monday Craziness

One of the few things that makes me embarrassed to be an American is the chaotic mob scenes and feeding frenzy that surround Black Friday.  Forget the mass consumerism aspect of what the holidays have become; it is the actual shopping madness that turns me off the most.  While most of the world was waking up, heading to work for the last day of the week, and going about their everyday business, millions of Americans were standing in line, braving crowds, and in some cases storming stores in order to score what they deemed was a great deal.  Why does the idea of buying an item, that you probably don't need in the first place, at a reduced price, drive us to join in the feeding frenzy? From stories of young children being left alone in cold vehicles while adults shop to women engaging in fist fights and guns being pulled on fellow bargain hunters, reports of these behaviors is down right humiliating.  And let us not forget the Walmart employee who was trampled to death by a crowd of over eager shoppers a few years ago.  Really?  For a Walmart item?  What on earth does Walmart sell that is so special that it causes a stampede?  Every year news reports show footage of people camping out in front of big box electronics stores so that they can get their hands on  that year's "must have" item.  Is a 51 inch flat screen television worth it?  Is receiving a free sample size of lotion because you were one of the first one hundred people to enter the store worth staying up all night?

I love a good deal just as much as the next person (maybe more) but I just don't see the attraction of this shopping frenzy.  Maybe I am jaded from my early post-college years when I worked in retail.  My Thanksgivings were never spent with family since I had to work at crack 'o dawn on Friday morning.  (I guess I should be grateful that this was in the days before stores decided to open on Thursday night).  Perhaps it is having seen the deal seeking crowds first hand that was enough to turn me off from the shopping craze.  I once had a boyfriend whose mother was a Black Friday shopping fanatic.  She would go to bed early on Thanksgiving evening so she could be the first one in the stores in the morning.  She developed her shopping strategy around who was giving away freebies at which hour and usually came home with a variety of useless items whose only appropriate use were the office white elephant party.

The Internet age has ushered in the online equivalent of the Friday shopping spectacle:  Cyber Monday.  Much like its end of the week counterpart, this is the day where great Internet deals are supposed to abound.  Maybe this is a calmer, more civilized way of shopping; I have no idea since it all takes place behind closed doors with no witnesses if you get in a fist fight with your spouse over who gets control the computer.  The irony of it all is that, like Black Friday's sales that actually begin on Thanksgiving evening, many of Cyber Monday's steals began on Saturday.   And how many of these deals are really deals?  Many of these so-called deals that keep popping up in my in-box offer no more of a savings than those that were appearing last week or even last month.  My response to each new offer is to promptly click delete but I'm probably in the minority on this since 52% of shoppers are planning on completing their holiday shopping online this year.  But will they all be shopping on Cyber Monday? Or will they be holding out for a better deal?

I recently had a conversation with several international friends about what it means to be American and what others think of as America.  It saddened me to hear that some of the first responses involved shopping malls, miles of highways, and Oprah.  Really? Italy has great food, Paris has the Eiffel Tower and the United States has Walmart?  What does that say about our country and our culture?  How do we break this stereo-type?  Images of brawling bargain hunters buying mass quantities of cheap Chinese produced merchandise certainly isn't the answer.  Maybe I need to just accept America for what it is:  the land of the free and the home of the brave and mass consumerism.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Ronald McDonald House Is A Special Place

Today, in honor of Sidney's third birthday I want to pay homage to what, prior to his early birth, had been a little known organization to me.  I first learned about the Ronald McDonald House of Portland, Maine during the early hours after Sidney's birth when we found ourselves facing the prospect of an extended hospital stay while hundreds of miles from our own home in Norfolk, Virginia.  With no where to stay a hospital social worker introduced us to the RMH and all it offered to parents in their times of need.

Ronald McDonald Houses are the charitable arms of the ubiquitous golden arches chain.  They provide shelter, support, and basic needs for families with sick or hospitalized children.  They are typically located within the vicinity of children's hospitals (Portland's is a mere one block walk away from the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital at Maine Medical Center).  For a donation of $10.00 a day, and even then only if you can afford the fee, families (parents, grandparents, and children) can stay in a private room in a home like setting.  The house isn't fancy but it is a home away from home.  Staffed around the clock by a bevy of paid staff and volunteers alike, as temporary residents we had ready access to laundry facilities, the Internet, home coked meals, and most importantly, a warm bed to come back to each evening.  Volunteers from every walk of life--churches, girl scout troops, high school honor societies, retiree associations, and ordinary citizens provided home cooked meals each evening.  Amid the daily craziness that had become my life, eating was the last thing on my mind but the volunteers made sure each and every one of us ate.  If we didn't want to stay for dinner they packed to-go boxes for us to take back to the hospital.  It was impossible to say "no" to the kind volunteers ensured we had one less thing to worry about.

So as I settled into my room at the RMH, the men in my family--namely my husband, brother, and step-father-- took it as an open invitation to eat as many meals as possible at their local McDonald Restaurants.  I've never been a fan of their food; call me un-American but I find it bland, unappetizing, and it is usually served (greasy and horror of all horrors) to cold.  On the rare occasion I was tempted the long snaking line for the drive through was the additional deterrent I needed.  Because of this it was ironic that I actually found myself waiting in the drive through line early one morning two weeks after Sidney was born. I had been given the go-ahead for Sidney to begin wearing clothes (prior to this he was only swaddled in blankets in his isolette) so I wanted to get him his own outfits to wear so I was making a quick run to Target.  I hadn't eaten yet so the golden arches called to me as I drove past.  As I pulled up to the drive-through window the Ronald McDonald House collection box attached to the window caught my attention.  Just the sight of it took on a whole new meaning to me and I found myself adding a very generous donation to its coffers.

During my one month at the RMH I met a variety of people I would never have met had the circumstances surrounding Sidney's birth been different.  While many of us were parents to premature babies others had children with chronic illnesses; children who were undergoing cancer treatments or awaiting organ transplants; regardless of the illness, the thought of a sick child is heartbreaking and we were all facing our children's illnesses together.  All of us had children who were patients at the hospital and together we were a motley group.  In our own strange way we became our own support group.  With a shared crisis between us, we bonded in a way that anyone who has not had a pre-mature or baby could ever understand.  I was rather a novelty amongst the group;  I was after all "the one from Virginia" (no matter how many times I invoked my own Maine birth, I was still from away), I quickly became the best versed in NICU terminology, and despite the physical distance, I had the best support network of family and friends.

Ever the student, I took copious notes when talking with Sidney's doctors then spent hours on the Internet researching the terminology and what it really meant.  I remember one snowy evening over dinner when I talked to a young dad, who himself had developmental delays.  He shakily expressed his frustration with his inability to understand what the doctors were telling him about his daughter's condition.  I think I was able to provide some clarity but it was in that moment that I realized I had more  in common with this young stranger than I did with my close knit group of suburban friends back in Norfolk. With Glenn back in Virginia working (and likely eating McDonald's), my mom visited several times a week, taking me out for Indian or Mexican food.  The fact that my mom drove over an hour each way to see me on a regular basis took many by surprise.  Several families staying at the house lived within fifteen miles of the hospital but due to their financial circumstances were unable to commute to and from the hospital on a daily basis.  Weekends at the house were often chaotic since families who couldn't visit during the week would come to stay with their loved ones.  I also received regular care packages from friends and family members;  when my in-laws sent me an Edible Creations fruit bouquet, I had children and adults alike swarming around me since they had never seen anything like it before.  As I shared the copious amount of fresh fruit with my housemates, several remarked that they had never had fresh pineapple before.

Some people stayed at RMH for a few nights while others stayed on for months.  There wasn't any limit on how long a family could reside there; if your child was in the hospital you were welcome to stay as long as needed.  I spent a total of twenty-seven nights at RMH and was considered a short-timer.  A few families came and went during my tenure and fortunately for everyone who checked out while I was there, they did so because their babies were going home.  (I know this is not always the case).  Collectively we were quick to welcome and provide support for new arrivals and we celebrated together when families packed up and went home.  We also celebrated each other's milestones and shared in the agony of setbacks.  When one baby girl was downgraded to critical and her tearful mother sat vigil at her bedside the rest of us felt her pain.  I was giddy with excitement when I learned that Sidney had been cleared to be transferred to a Virginia hospital on the same day Glenn was due to arrive in Maine to celebrate Christmas with us.  All of us RMH families celebrated this milestone and upon Glenn's arrival in Portland he received numerous congratulations from complete strangers who, although they didn't know him, knew and shared our story.  It is hard to put into words but the support I received during my stay is what helped me power through that scary time in my life.

Ronald McDonald Houses are truly special places.  It's been a busy three years since my stay at the RMH but they are never far from my thoughts.   I've made cash donations to the house in Portland and while in the States placed food donations in collection boxes at grocery stores.  Yes, I've even patronized a McDonald Restaurant or two and dropped a donation in their collection box.  I've vowed that when we return to the U.S., or to any country that has Ronald McDonald Houses, I will volunteer my time and efforts to support whichever house is local.  I would be honored to be one of those volunteers who provides home cooked dinners and other treats to weary residents.  I remember how much their support meant to me in my time of need and I want to play if forward to others.  This is a season of giving.  If any of you have the opportunity to do the same I urge you to do it.  I can personally attest to how much your volunteer efforts would be appreciated.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The End of Innocence?

Yet another sex scandal has been circulating through the American media recently.  This time it involves  Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who has voiced the Elmo character for twenty-eight years.  I've read these newspaper articles with profound sense of sadness.  And now we have learned that the puppeteer who has portrayed this beloved children's character since his television debut will no longer be the voice of Elmo.  After two different men have stepped forward accusing Clash of entering into sexual relationships with them while they were underage, Clash and Elmo have parted ways.  As lawsuits and accusations fly, those of us who are parents are left to ponder the larger implications of this latest very public scandal and wonder how, if necessary, we can explain it to our children. This whole story is tragic on so many fronts and makes me wonder whether anything is as safe and innocent as it may seem.  Is the innocence of childhood a thing of the past or did it never really exist in the first place?

I grew up watching Sesame Street in its early days before it became an international, multi-million dollar enterprise.  This was before the little red monster known as Elmo made his first appearance; before his lisping voice and bouncy animation filled the PBS airwaves.  This was before my family even owned a color television.  Prior to becoming a parent I was aware of Elmo but was fortunate enough to avoid having an intimate knowledge of him.  Soon after Sidney's first birthday the little red monster began creeping into our lives. Soon Elmo's voice filled our waking moments with his commentary on everything from the alphabet and numbers to potty training to wild animals and everything in between.  As annoying as we found Elmo we were grateful that at least he wasn't Barney the purple dinosaur (who is actually broadcast in both English and Albanian here).  Besides Sidney loves him, refers to his stuffed Elmo as his friend, and learned his ABCs and how to be safe in an emergency from him.  When Sidney's stuffed Elmo suffered an unrepairable eye injury a new Elmo arrived from the US and was introduced as the old Elmo having undergone eye surgery that had been performed by Glenn.  Sidney was a bit skeptical but quickly came around and the entire incident turned into a lesson on empathy and caring for those who are hurt.  For better or worse, Elmo has become an integral part of our lives.

This latest revelation about Clash's personal life raises deeper ethical questions for me.  Can one's personal life be truly separated from their professional life?  What if one's professional life is as public as Clash's?  (Although until this scandal broke I had no idea what Clash even looked like).  Does someone who works in the field of childhood education--or anything related to children for that matter- have to lead a more upstanding and moral life than someone whose livelihood does not revolve around children?  Harboring back to the ongoing Petraeus scandal why are people's personal sex lives fodder for the public?  What are the biggest crimes in all of this and who decides where the line is drawn in the sand?

Fortunately Sidney is still young and has yet to identify Elmo as being anything beyond his little red friend.  Thanks to not having direct access to network news and American newspapers it is likely that this specific scandal will pass Sidney by and he can continue in his current state of innocence where Elmo is concerned.  I know that it will not always be this easy; as he gets older and more independent and we can no longer filter his access to information, as parents I know we will have to be ready to answer probing questions as they arise.  I know we will have to be ready to respond to his inquiries as they get posed.  We won't be able to--no should we--shelter Sidney from the often harsh and ugly reality that is our world.  I know that we will have to be ready to explain our personal and family values in age-appropriate ways.  I'm so not ready for the day these questions come.  In the meantime I'm going to take  solace in the fact that Sidney is only three and his biggest concern where Elmo concerned is whether he should watch the Elmo DVD about letters or the one about numbers.  Now that is truly childhood innocence.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Post Thanksgiving Reflections

Thanksgiving was yesterday and the single thing I am most thankful for this morning is that the day is over.  Don't get me wrong.  I love Thanksgiving and everything about it.   In fact it is my favorite holiday.  From the food and festivities to family, friends, and friends who are like family I love it all. But each and every year it is a lot of work.  (OK the one year it wasn't a lot of work I was actually in the hospital having just given birth to Sidney so I guess in 2009 it was just a different type of work). Growing up I remember my mom complaining that by the time Thanksgiving dinner was served she didn't have an appetite for the food.  Fast forward thirty plus years and I was now in the same boat. After being in the kitchen with the turkey and various side dishes all day, the last thing I wanted to do was sit down and eat the food.  It was all I smelled throughout the day and when I made a brief escape outside I realized that even I smelled like turkey.  Late last night, long after the kitchens were cleaned and the guests had departed, I woke up from a fitful sleep.  I was so tired that I just couldn't sleep.  And I kept smelling turkey.

This year we had a total of sixteen people at dinner.  With ten adults and six kids ranging from ages two through ten it was considerably smaller than last year's celebration which was comprised of twenty-four people (including four Marines who ate a lot) sitting around three tables.  This year our guests represented an international cross section and more importantly, were people who we really wanted to share our holiday dinner with.  I scaled down the menu from last year; only one big turkey and no ham, one type of dressing instead of two and three different desserts instead of five. In keeping with the American family-style theme we gave our housekeeper the day off and I did all the cooking myself. We even served the meal buffet style in an attempt to keep things simple.

Well, this is Albania so I should know that even the simplest of plans are never quite that simple. I had to scrap my favorite Thanksgiving dishes--fresh cranberry and orange relish, cranberry-walnut bread, and baked sweet potato casserole--since fresh cranberries and sweet potatoes are not available in Albania.  The beauty of making multiple dishes is that if one doesn't work out you have a back up.  When my one and only bread--- a date and pecan loaf-- crumbled upon slicing, I had nothing to serve in its place.  It is a shame that it didn't look better because it tasted so good.  As usual Glenn and I debated whether or not we could serve it. I'm of the opinion that presentation is just as important as taste so it shouldn't go on the table. Glenn said it was a family style meal so serving the crumbs would be acceptable.  In the end it didn't get served (and its absence actually wasn't noticed).

The dinner itself was a success. It was full of laughter and great conversation and thanks to the presence of the children equally loud and chaotic. (It didn't help matters that my own son was the shrieking ring leader of the bunch who thrived off of being egged on by the others).  For some around the table it was their first American style Thanksgiving. For others, it was a repeat event.  For Glenn and I, it was reminiscent of holidays at home.  It was simultaneously wonderful and sad.  We had our traditions and were surrounded by friends but somehow Thanksgiving just isn't Thanksgiving without the parade, football games, and yes, as strange as it is, the National Dog Show.  In  keeping with Brown family tradition however, the men did clean up after dinner while the kids ran amok and the women supervised it all.

Every year I tell myself that the next year's dinner will be quieter and calmer.  We'll have fewer guests and less food.  By the time Thanksgiving rolls around again, however, I have forgotten the promise I had made to myself and go overboard all over again.  Even today, in my post turkey haze (where I've escaped to work just so I don't have to smell turkey), I'm already thinking ahead to next year.  Who will we invite to our final Albanian Thanksgiving?  What will I serve?  Should I try to order fresh sweet potatoes online and see if they arrive through the pouch?

Yes I'm exhausted today and glad Thanksgiving is over but in reality every bit of the chaos was worth it.  With the big dinner behind us I can look forward to a relaxing weekend of celebrating Sidney's third birthday and breaking out our Christmas decorations.  We plan on putting up our tree this weekend, organizing our guest list for our traditional holiday party and planning for looking forward to our Christmas in Germany.  While doing this we will be thinking about and missing our friends and family back home but we are also thankful for the friends and friends who are like family that we have here in Albania.  After all, that is what the holidays are really about.  And of course we will be eating lots of left over turkey. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Almost Famous

Christmas has arrived early to household Brown at a time when I have yet to even begin cooking for tomorrow's sit down Thanksgiving dinner for sixteen. Yesterday, two days before Thanksgiving (which in itself is very early this year), I hauled out my Christmas decorations for an interview and photo shoot about traditional American Christmas foods and decorations.  Living Magazine (an Albanian publication not to be confused with Martha Stewart Living) is writing an article profiling ex-pats in Albania on their Christmas traditions.  By sheer luck little old me is representing America in this article.

When I was first approached to do this I immediately began wondering what a traditional American Christmas looks like. After all, America is a very diverse country where a large percentage of its citizens don't even celebrate the holiday.  Is traditional American reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell scene?  Are palm tree Christmas trees and hula dancing Santa Clauses considered to be traditional (they are after all, uniquely American)?  Since the focus of the article was to be traditional foods I queried my foodie friends.  Their suggestions were as varied as the people themselves but left me no closer to an answer.  Growing up in a Polish-American household where our Christmas Eve celebration was a traditional Polish Wigilia followed by an American style dinner the next day my options were diverse.  Given my limited food resources here in Albania and the fact I haven't cooked a traditional Polish dish in years, I opted for what I know best:  pies.  After all, what is more American than pie? 

I dipped into my sacred stash of pureed pumpkin and make a pumpkin pie and a maple-walnut pie.  The former is such a traditional holiday dessert and the later was a unique dish in my own family since we lived in New England (the maple influence) and my mother was not a fan of pecans (the traditional American nut).  The night before the interview I made two "practice" pies and staged the ingredients. After all, no one wants to see me running back and forth between the kitchen and the pantry as I try to put together a dish.  I also dug out some of my most cherished Christmas decorations and all of our family's (including the dog) stockings to share with the the reporter.

I was a bit nervous when the reporter and his photographer arrived.  Not only do I not like to have my picture taken but I also dislike anyone being in the kitchen with me when I cook.  Fortunately, the reporter immediately put me at ease and it turned out that there was very little actual cooking involved.  (Thank goodness I had actually taken the time to make pies ahead of time).  Instead we spent close to two hours talking about my family's Christmas food and decorating traditions.  We started in the kitchen when I mimed preparing then eating the pies while talking about the ingredients and why these foods are traditional to me.  If it wasn't for the occasional flash of the camera and cued instructions I would have forgotten that the photographer was even there as I reminisced about the foods I grew up on.  When we moved onto the decorations and the stories behind each ornament I became even more sentimental.  Sharing the story behind my angel ornament, the significance of a hand crocheted snowflake, and what the U.S. Navy nutcracker signified reminded me why these holiday seasons are so important to me. 

In one respect the two hours flew by. At the same time I was exhausted when it was over.  With my pearls, matching twin set, Williams-Sonoma kitchen gadgets and disturbingly coordinated holiday decorations, I suspect the results are an Albanian combination of Town & Country meets Better Homes and Gardens with a little Martha Stewart thrown in for good measure.  We will see how this all turns out when the December issue of the magazine hits newsstands next month.  Of course since the magazine is only published in Albanian and (thankfully) the interview was in English, I wonder how my thoughts will get translated.  In the meantime, we have plenty of  pies to eat and while missing my stateside family, I am already in the Christmas spirit.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Historic Durresi

Part of the remaining Byzantine Wall that once surrounded the city
On the coast of the Adriatic Sea, the city of Durres is the largest port in Albania.  While we have travelled to all corners of Albania, after living here for seventeen months I had only visited the port area of the city in order to take the dreaded ferry to Italy.  And like any port area around the world, the area is less than impressive.  Albanian colleagues had assured me that Durres was a beautiful city with historic buildings, archaeological ruins, and a lot to offer but I had remained skeptical. That is until this past weekend when I attended an Embassy sponsored tour of what turns out to be an amazingly historic city.

We were fortunate to have a dynamic English speaking guide whose knowledge of the history of Albania was both amazing and mind boggling.  Not only could Lida rattle off facts, dates, and historical names as though they were second nature, she wasn't fazed by a single question that was thrown her way.  (As an American history major I couldn't even begin to recite a fraction of the facts of my own country).  And our group of Americans was full of questions pertaining to both Durres and Albania. 

The remains of the Roman Baths and the
exterior of the Communist-era building
that was constructed on top of the ruins.

As is the case with many of Albania's historic sites, their level of preservation is minimal at best, non-existent and tragic at worst.  This was evident at each of the sites we visited during the day.  Like many ancient ruins (those in Rome come to mind) modern cities have popped on all sides of these historic relics.  Often the spaces encroach upon one another but never to the extent that I saw in Durres.  In so many respects, nothing exemplifies the contrast between old and new more than these sights.  After peering over the fence and into the partially excavated Byzantine era Forum, Lida used her magic key (she is so well known in both Durres and Albanian historical circles that she is given unfettered access to many sites) to escort us down into the old Roman Baths dating to the early 2nd Century AD.  The baths were first discovered several decades ago during the construction of an unfortunate concrete, Communist-Era building.  To Albania's credit the ruins were not completely destroyed.  To Albania's discredit, they continued to construct the building which now sits on  concrete pillars over the top of the baths.  It was an interesting experience to clamber through the old bath, walk along one of the main roads of the ancient city and explore the old aqua duct all while standing in what should be the basement of a concrete apartment building. Somehow I feel like the entire experience (for better or for worse) was uniquely Albanian.
Inside the Roman Baths and under the building;
an interesting take on historic preservation
to say the least.

Lida lead us through the narrow cobblestone streets to the entrance to the ancient amphitheater.  Some of the streets were remarkably well preserved while others were comprised of stamped concrete which I think was an attempt to replicate the original pavers.  During the 2nd-century AD this amphitheater was the largest one in the Balkans with an arena that measured approximately 60 meters by 40 meters and had a seating capacity for 15,000 spectators.  This is about one-third of the capacity of the Colosseum in Rome.  Today the site is only partially excavated since modern houses and roads sit atop this once historic site.  Again, this demonstrated the stark contrast between old and new and exemplified how Albania has not undertaken historic preservation in a serious manner.  As Lida led us through the narrow passageways and out into the open arena, she casually pointed out sites that she had personally excavated.  How often is it that one gets a personal tour of a site by the very person who had unearthed its treasures?  We were escorted through the Byzantine chapel complete with a baptismal and home to the only wall mosaics ever found in Albania.  The chapel was used for funeral services after gladiatorial combat had been banned in the 5th century.  Evidence of burial chambers- one holding 40 bodies- was evident and it is speculated that the un-excavated portion of the arena floor contains even more graves waiting to be discovered.

Inside the amphitheater
The advantage of having such a knowledgeable guide was obvious throughout the entire day. Not only could she point out minute details that would have otherwise been lost on us, she was able to show us what was original to the sites, what was preserved, and what was reconstructed.  Some of it was readily apparent even to the untrained eye but others were less so.  It is sad that the opportunity for the preservation of so many of these important and historic artifacts has been lost. While it is small consolidation that some preservation has taken place, much of it appears to have been poorly done or not done at all.  I guess it is half a dozen of one and half a dozen of the other. While so much has been lost there is still time to save what is left.  I hope that is in the future for this surprisingly historic city.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Loose Lips Sink Ships

In the Navy they say that "loose lips sink ships."  Developed as a World War II propaganda campaign, this slogan warned Americans of the national security dangers of talking too freely.  This phrase has been repeated throughout popular culture in oft referenced humorous ways but the phrase remains a reality to families from all branches of the military.  Modern day lingo now refers to this as OPSEC (Operational Security) and military commands take these warning seriously.  As a military spouse I quickly learned to not ask questions or talk about ship and troop movements, impending port calls, and who is going to be where at what time.  This didn't mean I didn't want to know; yes I was often curious but the reality was that I didn't have a legitimate reason to know the details.  (Because my husband was involved did not create a legitimate need to know).  Information made public by a command's public affairs office was often intentionally vague and more often than not, issued after the fact.  This is all purposefully done to keep our soldiers, sailors, and our nation safe.

During Glenn's last deployment we developed codes of a sort for communicating with each other.  When I met the ship in Dubai for Christmas the planning both via scratchy phone calls and email were vague in detail.  We figured it out though and made it work.  It was during this last deployment that Facebook burst onto the scene for those of us who weren't twenty-something college students.  OPSEC rules seemed to fly out the window as spouses, girlfriends, parents, and even sailors themselves posted information on their unrestricted pages about ship location and movement.  I kept coming across a particularly irritating and disturbing breach of information in one navy spouse chat group where a woman had a count down clock marking the time until she "met John in Dubai for a vacation".  Combine that with postings about the name of her husband's ship (not the same one Glenn was on), her husband's job and her travel plans and this could translate into a terrorist's dream.

The loose lips concept transcends the military and into the civilian world as well.  I've long grown accustomed to not asking Glenn specific questions about his work. If he wants to share details he will.  If he can't or doesn't want to it saves him from being in the uncomfortable position of having to tell me he can't tell me.  I'm continually amazed by the number of people- experienced military officers, their spouses, and others with experience working around sensitive information- who insist on probing for answers that they really have no business knowing.   Being a spouse, child, or parent of someone does not necessitate the need to know names, dates, places, and the like.  A simple "because I said so" or "because I can't talk about it" from the person being questioned should suffice. 

I'm equally alarmed by the number of people who work in these sensitive positions who repeat work related issues to their spouses and family members.  I've lost track of the number of times where I've heard what I would deem sensitive information from other spouses who have no legitimate reason for being aware of such information.  What might be interpreted as pillow talk or playground chatter can in reality translate into so much more.  This is scary business folks.  For the sake of our own safety, those of the ones we love, and of our country I urge everyone to rethink their legitimate need to know information.   Its not being rude or dismissive; its practicing good OPSEC.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Diplomatic Ladies Lunch

The Defense Attache Corps here in Tirana is small; whereas some countries have numerous embassies with large, multi-staffed offices, the one here in Tirana is as small as the country itself.  Throw in the fact that half of the Attaches are either single or do not have spouses who accompanied them to Tirana and we end up with a small, yet eclectic group of women.  (Yes, we are all women; I'm not sure how a high ranking female foreign military officer would be received in Albania).

Periodically we spouses will get together without our husbands.  Our get togethers inevitably involve food, lots of coffee, and even more laughing.  I am fortunate that English is the "common" language amongst the group.  That said, there are spouses who speak very little or no English at all.  Others have a solid and ever improving comprehension of the language and a few of us are truly fluent. A few of us speak some Albanian. Hence, if nothing else our get togethers are always amusing.  We represent a diversity of countries, cultures, and ages.  Some of us are raising children, others are now grandmothers, and there are spouses with no children at all.  Despite our language barriers we have a lot in common.  After all, every one of us is a military spouse who has first hand experience with the hardships, responsibilities, and long separations that are a part of being a military family.  Currently we are all foreigners living in a strange. We share a love of our individual countries (who might not always get along) but these fundamental differences don't prevent our friendships.  We are all strong and independent women.

Our most recent social event involved coffee at two separate cafes--this is Albania after all-- with a lunch at a traditional Kosovarian restaurant squeezed in between.  Whereas some of our get togethers have been more formal, think coffee sipped from china cups--this one was anything but.  We sat in a small dark restaurant with old men and the City's sanitation works eating platters of qofta, pickled cabbage, and drank Peja beer directly from the bottle.  I'm sure the sight of us with our designer handbags and bottles of hand sanitizer gave the regulars plenty to look at and talk about.  The food was surprisingly good but the best part of the meal was the company.  We shared pictures of our children and discussed the cultural differences of baptisms in our different countries. (Somehow when together, we always have at least one completely random discussion).  We compared notes on whose husband had told them what, what the Attache social schedule looked like for the next month, and because this was right after our presidential elections, President Obama. (I am continually impressed by how well versed foreigners are in both current American politics and American history). When we reached a language stumbling block miming and acting out what we were trying to say became a perfectly acceptable way to communicate.  (The word "rooster" might be different in each language but the sound the bird makes is always the same!).  Somehow it all makes sense in the end. 

By the end of lunch my stomach hurt from not only eating too much but laughing too hard.  As is the case whenever I get together with any of my female friends- regardless of their nationality, political affiliation, or familial status, I am always grateful for their friendship.  I have come to count on this small group of friends for laughter and support.  It reiterates to me that through the thick and thin, good times and bad, it is friends that get us through.  So thank you, TMAA ladies.

TMAA ladies lunching

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Tragic Affair

CIA Director (Retired) General David Petraeus was just the most recent high profile man whose name has been besmirched by the revelation that he had conducted an extra-marital affair. He follows in some equally high profile footsteps:   Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Prince Edward VIIIJohn Edwards, Gary Hart, John F. Kennedy.  Sadly enough, the list just goes on.  Heck, Thomas Jefferson, a man hailed as a founding father, entered into his own affair with Sally Hemmings.  Perhaps he was only setting an unfortunate precedent on which future men of power were to stand.

Each and every man, upon the public revelation of his indiscretion(s), has issued a public statement along the lines of being ashamed and regretful for their actions, feeling sorry for the hurt he had caused his family, and being remorseful for letting his country and/or supporters down.  Sometimes these sorrowful pleas are made with their wives standing by their sides.  Sometimes they go it alone.  So my question is this:  why is this pattern of indiscretions repeated over and over from one generation to the next?  Was the risk of losing it all---their family, position, status, and reputation worth the sex?  Or was it more than sex?  In the big scheme of things is ego so closely connected to that all so important male organ?

Caught up in the news coverage of this latest scandal, I stumbled upon a picture of General Petraeus and his wife at his retirement ceremony.  She is exactly what I can see myself being in a few years:  a woman who isn't as fit and attractive as she once was; who looks perpetually tired, who has dedicated herself to supporting her husband's career and raising their children at the expense of her own self care. She is obviously someone who has performed the unpaid responsibilities that were expected of her due to her husband's position thus silently making it possible for him to achieve the success that he has. News accounts have discussed her ongoing dedication to military families of all ranks through numerous long deployments.  (One could argue it was her decision to do these things but the unspoken military rules dictate that providing this support and leadership is the responsibility of command spouses and thus does impact their husband's careers).  And then you see a picture of the "other" woman.  Cute, perky, and fit, she appears to be everything that Mrs. Petraeus isn't.  One look at her and you know she isn't dealing with midnight feedings, debating over whose turn it was to take out the trash, and wondering how to make financial ends meet at the end of the month.  Sometimes I wonder whether this is just the lot in life for so many of us who have sacrificed our own dreams and desires in order to support those of our husbands. 

Is the sacrifice worth it? While educated, cultured, and supportive, these supporting women aren't necessarily using their education when they drive car pool, manage the military wives club (yes, these organizations do still exist), and keep the household running.  As someone who falls into this group, it often makes me wonder whether someone who is well versed in politics and world affairs and has the opportunities to use this knowledge is more intellectually, and perhaps physically attractive that someone whose day revolves around meeting the school bus, baking dozens of cookies for the PTA bake sale, paying the mortgage, and planning family vacations to visit the in-laws.  I know wives who have stressed over this while stuck at home while their spouses work long hours, travel or are deployed as part of their job.  Does sheer proximity create opportunities?

Every time I hear of yet another extra-marital affair—whether high profile or one between ordinary people—my own insecurities bubble up to the surface. For some reason, news of affairs strikes a chord with me; despite the sense of commitment that I feel is prevalent in my own marriage, in my more insure moments I wonder if I too could fall victim to being the naive spouse.  I wonder whether infidelity is an unfortunate fate that will touch most couples.  (After all, 50% of first American marriages and 67% of second marriages end in divorce with 60% of these divorces being attributed to infidelity on the part of one or both of the spouses).  Sometimes I worry that I don't show enough interest in my husband's job and career.  Should I be asking more questions?  Should I ask less?  Should I muffle my complaints about the mundane household issues-- car maintenance, paying bills, or remembering to follow through on one of a hundred other less than glamorous tasks that make up our lives? Should I make more of an effort to be domestic (a real struggle for me)--a cleaner house, be more dedicated mother, tend to his needs instead of telling him to do it himself?  Should I fawn over him more and play up his importance instead of being what I see as the grounding force in our relationship (what he is doing now is only temporary but our family unit is forever).  Despite being tired at the end of the day, week, etc should I be more sexual?

The underlying question is what causes one to stray from their marriage vows? Power, money, influence, boredom, proximity, the quest for excitement and something new?  Whatever the causes, the results are ugly and no one wins.  Unfortunately I this is the ugly underbelly of human nature.  If we can't look to our elected officials and other prominent leaders as role models for ethical behavior, who can we look to?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Let's Go to Kosovo

Yes, you read that right.  Like so many people of my generation, going to Kosovo was the last thing we ever dreamed about.  Heck, when we were growing up Kosovo didn't even exist as its own country; rather it was a part of what was then called Yugoslavia.  In the eyes of some countries, including neighboring Serbia, Kosovo still doesn't exist as a sovereign country .  Fortunately for us, the United States does recognize its sovereignty as a country and with our Embassy recently lifting travel restrictions to this once war torn land, we decided to take a quick weekend trip across the border to a country that was essentially unknown to us.

Kosovo is a small country--just 3,898 square miles-- nestled between Albania and Montenegro to the west and Serbia and Macedonia to the north, east, and south. Like all of the Balkans, the land that is now Kosovo has a long and hard history that mostly revolves around being occupied by various warring and conquering armies.  Serbs, Austro- Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Ottomans are just some of the empires that occupied this area at one time or another and pieces of their influence are still in evidence today.  The Kosovo War of the early 1990s was the most recent conflict that tore this tiny land apart yet it was this very war that has helped shape the country into what it is today.

Today Kosovo is a meeting place where old meets new.  Newly paved highways make way for well maintained cobble stone streets in city centers.  Ancient Ottoman era buildings that have survived numerous wars share sidewalk space with modern high rises.  The partially built concrete houses along the Albanian border reflect that country's ongoing influence as well.  The contrasts are astounding but seem to speak to what Kosovo is all about.

So what did I think about Kosovo?  I wasn't sure what to expect.  As is the case whenever we cross the boarder from Albania we immediately know we are in a different country. (On this trip we were surprised before we left since the Kosovarian immigration official did not allow cars to push their way to the head of the long line.  That sort of discipline and understanding of rule of law doesn't exist on the Albanian side of the border.  Sorry folks, everyone really must wait their turn).  As a first time visitor I was immediately surprised by the country's fertile farmland.  While ringed by mountains, the country itself is relatively flat.  We probably passed more tractors than cars- both old, new, and questionably recognizable as such-- in our drive from the border to Pristina.  Boys and old men alike hawked cabbage, grapes, and pears from wagons parked along the side of the road.  Agriculture is obviously a large part of Kosovo's economy.

Evidence of Albania was readily apparent everywhere we looked.  The population of Kosovo is 92% ethnic Albanian so we readily understood the language- well as much as we do in Albania anyway.  Kosovarians are just as excited about Albania's impending anniversary as their neighbors to the west. The ubiquitous black double-headed eagle graced signs and buildings and every jewelry store window had at least one piece of jewelry with the national Albanian symbol on it.  Albanian flags waved from storefronts and windows and like Albania, appreciation of all things America was strong.  Stores bragged of "New York style" foods and clothing and the American flag flew alongside that of Kosovo and NATO.  Just as many cars sported Albanian plates as Kosovarian and restaurant menus read the same as those back in Albania.

The long term influence of the NATO KFOR was immediately apparent.  From the well maintained and well marked roadways to the completed buildings and evidence of on-going foreign investment, the capital of Pristina seemed to be bustling with activity.  Even early on a Sunday morning construction work was continuing on the expansion of a pedestrian only walkway.  Glenn had visited Pristina this past September and commented that significant progress had been made in the past couple of months.  Along the roadways police were enforcing traffic laws and not once did we see a double or triple parked car within the city.  Hence, traffic flowed along the roads the way it was intended to and marked crosswalks and working streetlights made it safe to move about as both a driver and a pedestrian.

Overall I liked what I saw.  The planner in me was excited by the well thought out construction that was taking place.  The reconstruction of Kosovo is far from complete but I am hopeful that the country is headed in the right direction.  As we were leaving we decided that we want to go back again. If for no other reason that to see the continued progress (and to be able to drive to the end of the almost completed interstate).

In front of the Skenderbeg Statue in Pristina

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Semper Fidelis

Today marks the 237th birthday of the United States Marine Corps.  As is the case around the world, every year the Marines throw themselves a birthday ball.  In the Embassy community, this ball is usually the biggest social event of the year.  It is an opportunity to pick out the perfect dress, hire a sitter and go out for the night.  Some people really live it up and dance until the wee hours of the morning.  Yes pomp, circumstance, and tradition have a large role in the evening's affairs but we need to all remember the real  reason behind the event.  At the birthday ball we honor and remember Marines past, present, and future, who put their lives on the line to defend and protect our country.  That is what the evening is really all about.

Let the ceremony begin

The Ambassador during the National Anthem

The all important cutting of the birthday cake

Marines letting loose

Us being all fancy and official

Friday, November 9, 2012

Albania is Like Cheesecake

We recently hosted a dinner for several members of the attache corp here in Albania.  All eight of us at the table enjoy good quality food that is both well prepared and well presented. Glenn and I put together the guest list thinking that this would be an opportunity to serve more flavorful and unique food than many of our usual guests find palatable.  I loved the idea of this dinner but as I set about actually planning and preparing each dish, I began to second guess the wisdom behind the entire evening.

With the dinner planned for a Monday evening and my having to work all that day, I spent most of the previous weekend doing the actual shopping and cooking. As is the case with most things in Albania, everything here is more difficult than it should be.  Not being able to find the ingredients I needed, each course of my menu kept changing until it barely resembled what I had originally planned.  While I was rushing through my preparations, I figured that if all else failed, my New York style cheesecake, made with the last of my real Philadelphia cream cheese imported from the Navy Commissary in Naples, Italy, would be the saving grace of the dinner.   That was until the bottom of the pan fell out leaving me covered in a smooth and decadent mixture of cream cheese, eggs, and cookie crumbs.

I was close to tears as I mopped up the sticky mess from the floor, stove top, and front of the hot oven where it had immediately petrified upon contact.  I was angry at myself for rushing and being careless; I furiously wondered what I could serve as a substitute, and I wondered how I would now get everything done in my already rushed time frame.  Instead of comforting me, the sympathy being extended by Glenn and Sidney only fueled my anger.  As I chipped baked-on batter from the crevices of the range (how on earth did this gooey mess spread so quickly?) I began to reflect on the whole situation and realized that if I had just taken the time to be careful, if I had made sure that the spring form pan was really secured, and I had placed it on the cookie sheet BEFORE filling it with the batter, I wouldn't have had this problem.  My take away from this experience is that if you take the time to do it correctly, things will always work out better in the end.  My brain really was spinning because as I scrubbed up the last remants of my failed dessert I started comparing my flopped cheesecake to the country of Albania.  Yes, you read that correctly:  my cheesecake mess is much like the country of Albania.

Since we first arrived here, both Glenn and I have felt that Albania is a country with so many possibilities but whose potential seems to be fading away by the day.  From the country's poorly planned and implemented infrastructure to its lack of building codes resulting in uncontrolled sprawl, Albania is bursting at her seams and taking her magnificent natural beauty with her. In the quest for instant gratification, houses are built where there is empty space but this is done without proper considerations being made to access to public services and utilities.  Hence one problem is simply compounded with another.  In a pre-election year roads are being built and paved at a rapid pace.  While they may look good now one wonders whether they will withstand the test of time--or even a year or two.  Government officials make decisions and enact laws that benefit a few at the expense of the many; again, this may result in splashy instant gratification but the longer term consequences are often detrimental to all of Albanian society.  Unfortunately it appears that in the rush to make up for lost time, too many corners are being cut and shortcuts taken.  Remember, just because you paint a pretty picture or drive the big car with shiny hubcaps doesn't mean that what lies underneath is made of quality material.  Care in planning needs to happen now before it is too late to rectify all of the past mistakes and to prevent future ones.

See, Albania really is like my cheesecake.  If I had taken the time to plan and implement it correctly from the beginning, I wouldn't have found myself in such a mess.  If Albania had taken the time to plan for her future, they wouldn't be in the current mess they are in today either.  Eating a well made cheesecake is a heavenly experience; visiting a well planned and operated Albania could be as well.

P.S.  I ended up making a flourless chocolate cake that turned out to be a hit.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Bread Evolution

I've found that cooks fall into three categories; those that follow recipe directions as if their lives depend upon it, those that never follow any written recipe and make things up as they go along, and those who fall somewhere in between.  I fall into the later category.  When it comes to non-desserts I rarely follow a recipe.  Rather I add and delete things to the pan based on what smells and tastes right and what ingredients I have on hand.  I'm usually a directions following gal when it comes to baking; after all the chemical reactions and leavening required for so many baked goods leaves this chemistry challenged cook running for my cookbooks.  Because of this, my recent savory bread experiment was a departure from my norm and it turned out to be a success.

The Kitchen Ninja, author of my favorite cooking blog The Adventures of the Yankee Kitchen Ninja, recently posted a recipe for a savory an olive bread that she in turn had tweaked from Susan Hermann Loomis of On Rue Tatin fame.  In my attempt at recreating the bread I substituted, improvised and experimented as I saw fit.  The resulting bread came out so well that I'm going to have to start experimenting with my baking more.

You can find my recipe for vegetable-olive bread here.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

And The Winner Is........................

The American people.  Or at least at the moment we are the winners.  Regardless of how we may personally feel about the outcome of yesterday's election, we must celebrate the democratic process.  Because as a free and democratic country political candidates from every demographic of American society can step forward with pledges to represent the interests of the people.  These said people in turn do their homework on the candidates' platforms then cast their votes for the candidate whose pledges best match their personal ideals.  The process if far from perfect- unfortunately issues of race, religion, and socio-economic status get thrown into the debate--causing us to lose sight of so many of the real issues.  At times it gets down right ugly--how many attack ads (in both directions) can we actually watch?   However, throughout it all, this is what democracy is all about.  The  freedom to vote is a right that many Americans take for granted.  It is the desire for this very freedom and democratic ideals that causes citizens of countries around the world to take to the streets to challenge their own governments.
Over the past few months I've watched with simultaneous interest, astonishment, and at times disgust as my Facebook friends have posted various political commentaries as a part of their regular status updates.  I've found some of the postings to be predictable while others have taken me by complete surprise.  The wonderful thing through this entire process is that I've realized the great diversity I have amongst my friends.  Who knew?   For every friend who posted in support of gay marriage, universal health care, and a woman's right to control her own body I have read counter posts that support the repeal of "Obama-care",  the preservation of  traditional marriage, and the reforming of our current Medicare and welfare systems.  

Do I agree with everything that is posted?  Absolutely not.  Some of the more thoughtful postings, however, have challenged me to really think about what and why I believe what I do.  While we agree on many issues, in the split-party Brown household, such postings have resulted in some lively conversations.  Glenn and I have debated whether health care is a right or a privilege and how the United States government should handle the on-going immigration debate.  In the end we've mostly agreed to disagree on these divisive issues but we've both learned a bit along the way. (People who know both of us might be surprised on which side of the line our individual opinions lie).

Because the American people have spoken, collectively as a country we now need to agree to disagree and work towards our shared goal of wanting what is best for the country.  If we don't agree with the outcome of the election we will have another chance in four years to change things.  Regardless of which side of the aisle we sit on, whether we are red, blue, or purple, what is important is that we move forward as a cohesive force and tackle the numerous problems and obstacles that await us.  As Mitt Romney said in his concession speech:

               The nation, as you know, is at a critical point.  At a time like this, we can't
               risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach
               across the aisle to do the people's work. And we citizens also have to rise
               to the occasion.

If we can do this, we will all be winners.  If we can't, then we all lose.   

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

And My Vote Didn't Count

Yes, you read the title correctly.  My vote did not count.  I am simultaneously embarrassed, angered, and frustrated by the whole situation but being stuck here in Albania, there isn't a whole lot I can do about it.

I've always voted.  Whether it be a presidential election year or one that only has local candidates on the ballot, I haven't missed an election since my first vote in the 1992 election. Granted, that year, as I have done more often than not, my vote was cast by absentee ballot.  I still remember the Sunday afternoon when I sat in the Mount Holyoke College library feeling so grown up as I used a Number 2 pencil to fill in my little bubbles on my State of Maine ballot.  I relished that opportunity that as an American citizen is a right, and responsibility, and a privilege.

While I only follow politics loosely, I've always made sure that whenever I have moved my status as a registered voter has followed me.  The first thing I did upon becoming a Massachusetts resident was to make sure I was registered in my local city.  The same held true when I became a Virginia resident.  At that point, Virginia made it easy by allowing me to complete my voter registration form while applying for my Commonwealth of Virginia driver's license.

During our brief fourteen months of living in Washington D.C. I kept my residency in Norfolk and voted in the one local election by absentee ballot.  Immediately prior to our move to Albania, I finally got around to changing my address on my driver's license to reflect our new Dulles, VA mailing address.  No longer owning property in Norfolk and knowing we would be living overseas during this important presidential election, I made sure I also changed by voter registration information.  With the completion of the form, I was now a registered voter in Loudoun County, Virginia--- or so I thought.  This was in June 2011 and not hearing otherwise, I assumed I was all set.  Despite all of the get out to vote information that has permeated the Embassy over the past several months, I never gave my registration status another thought.  This past summer I even received a letter from the City of Norfolk confirming that I was no longer a registered voter in there.

Late last month (yes I procrastinated) when I went to download my ballot from the internet, I first began to suspect something might not be right.  I was asked to reverify my registration information, which I thought was strange but I did.  I then downloaded, completed, and mailed via snail-mail my completed ballot.  I didn't give too much more thought to my vote until last week when I received an official looking letter from the Loudoun County Registrar of Voters.  Apparently it had been mailed two weeks prior but due to our slow mail system, it took that long to reach me.  In no uncertain terms, the letter informed me that I was not eligible to vote in Loudoun County since I did not have a valid residential address there.  I know this isn't a valid address and they informed me as much in stating that I had a Department of State overseas address.  But what am I supposed to do if I don't have a valid residential address? I don't live in the United States and don't own property there so I don't have a residential address there.  What was I supposed to have put in the address line?

I am angry and frustrated about this entire situation.  I believe that every American should get out and vote and I am embarrassed that I wasn't more proactive about my own situation.  Our ancestors fought for the right for all Americans to vote and I feel that by not doing my part, I have let them down.  I am frustrated by a system that does not make it easy and clearer for a military family serving overseas to easily be able to cast a ballot.  I am frustrated by Loudoun County who took so long to inform me that I wasn't eligible to vote there. Given the large number of Department of State employees whose mail gets processed in Dulles I surely can't be the first person to make this mistake.  But mostly I am angry at myself.  I should have followed through and questioned my status much earlier in this election process.  I should have made sure that I had a residential address in Virginia to claim as my own.  I really have no excuse and really only have myself to blame.

So I was not able to cast a vote in the all important swing state of Virginia.  It is a (very) small consolation that for entirely different reasons, Glenn was not able to cast his ballot in the equally swinging state of Florida.  Since we would have voted for different candidates (something we were both recently surprised to discover) maybe our votes, or lack there of, would have cancelled each other out.

As I head to bed on this election evening (we are after all, six hours ahead of East Coast time), I wonder if I will wake up with a new American president.  Given how close the race appears to be I wonder whether we will even know.  Whatever the case, my vote will not be one of the millions cast.  So if Virginia swings in either direction by a single vote, I will only have myself to blame.