Thursday, February 28, 2013

Getting Horsey

Horse meat has been in the news recently.  The revelation that traces of horse meat had been found in products labeled as pure ground beef in Great Britain first triggered the uproar.   Much to the horror of many consumers, DNA testing revealed the presence of horse meat in frozen foods sold in grocery stores across Europe.  And then it was revealed that even the meatballs sold at IKEA, the iconic Swedish super store, were tainted with horse meat.  (The presence of dangerous hormones is an entirely different story; we should all care about potentially dangerous toxins in our foods).  While horse meat is not commonly eaten in England, in Eurasian countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan horse meat is a very common meat.  And horse meat consumption is not limited to less developed parts of the world.  China, Mexico, Argentina, and Italy are ranked amongst the top consumers of horse meat.  At Ljubljana, Slovenia's  Hot Horse fast food restaurant, horse burgers are pumped out the same way McDonald's serves Big Macs.  Not every country has jumped on the horse meat bandwagon however.  The Food Standards Code of Australia and New Zealand does not recognize horse meat as a "meat" and Jewish dietary laws forbid the consumption of horse meat because horses do not have cloven hooves.  To each their own.

I'm not advocating for or against the consumption of horse meat.  Food is very much cultural and very personal.  What is popular in one country might be considered inedible in another and within individual countries people make their own dietary decisions based on their own personal beliefs.  While Americans love their beef, reindeer rules supreme in Scandinavian countries, haggis fills plates in Scotland, raw fish is rolled into sushi in Japan, and rabbit is common fare in Italy.  And just think about some of the culinary delicacies found in Asian countries.   I once had a conversation with a woman whose husband travelled the world extensively for work.  She often joined him and attended her fair share of lunches and dinners where she was treated with VIP status.  She said she found Asian trips particularly challenging.  As such, she had found herself in many situations where she was expected to consume flora and fauna that would be considered inedible by American standards.  She quickly learned that in the name of world diplomacy she must not question what was on the plate in front of her before a meal, and perhaps to only question after it had been consumed.  In the Balkans, and other parts of Eastern Europe, every part of the animal is eaten.  And when I say every part, I mean every part.  I once visited a butcher shop in Budapest, Hungary that proudly displayed case upon case of pig penises and testicles.  You will see sheep eyeballs peering up at you from meat cases in Albania and as a guest of honor you may be presented with an entire sheep head.  Our butcher was excited when ordering a whole lamb for the first time, I told him that he could keep the head, feet, and all of the inner organs. Personally, they just aren't my cup of tea.  The French have escargot and the Greeks have calamari; strange looking foods that get consumed with great gusto.  In comparison to some cultures, American cuisine can be pretty tame but we have some foods that appear to be just as foreign to people unfamiliar with the American palate.  Try explaining a chicken fried steak or a corn dog to a European and imagine the questioning looks you will get.

I love food and will try just about everything once.  With the exception of a couple of the items mentioned above, I have tried them all. Some I liked and would order again but others I will take a pass on the next time around.  In a world where millions of people are simultaneously starving and obese, food is more than sustenance.  It speaks to who we are and our values as individuals and cultures.  It identifies us and defines us. Who are we to pass judgement on what others choose to eat?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Longest Two Hours

Yesterday I experienced what I think was the longest two hours of my life.  Glenn and I are in Germany for the week--he's here for a conference and I tagged along to deal with my own long over due medical issues-- but Sidney is back in Albania.  The phone call was from our nanny via Glenn's translator informing us that Sidney was spiking a fever again and Children's Tylenol was doing little to keep his temperature at bay.  This is a phone call that no parent ever wants to receive especially when they are hundreds of miles and two plane rides from home.  I felt instantly sick, worried and a bit panicky.  Fortunately, we have an amazing nurse at our Embassy and after a single phone call to her she assured me she would do a house call (who does that any more?) to check on Sidney. The kicker?  She wouldn't be able to do it for two hours so all I could do was sit and wait.

I had left Tirana with a bit of trepidation on Sunday. Sidney had been sick for two days but seemed to be on the mend so I told myself that I was doing the right thing by leaving him in the very capable hands of the nanny.  After all, I needed to get my own medical needs addressed and with the appointments scheduled and plane tickets purchased I didn't have a lot of options. It was heartbreaking to leave Sidney on Sunday morning. Although he was feeling better he was clingy and wouldn't let me put him down.  Glenn and I had been preparing him for our departure for several days by telling him about the play dates we had arranged, the fun he would have with his Nene and assuring him that we would return on Friday.  He didn't cry during our final few minutes at home; rather he snuggled his warm little face into the base of my neck and informed me that "no, Mamma can't go.  Don't go."  It was heartbreaking and I felt ill at ease on the ride to the airport but I told myself that all of this was for the best.  And then I got the phone call yesterday.

I paced in my hotel room and wandered the attached mall and food court in an attempt to pass the two hours.  I tried to call Glenn and ended up leaving him a text message asking him to call me immediately.  I went online to see if I could get a flight back to Tirana that day. Of course it wasn't possible with the earliest I would be able to arrive back being mid-afternoon today at three times the cost of what we paid to fly here.  I thought through all the possible ways to get back to Albania that day. Nothing was feasible and I felt trapped.  Every worst case scenario played through my mind. Was Sidney O.K.?  Would he end up having to go to the hospital?  An Albanian hospital???......that thought really caused me to panic. If he had to be medi-vaced I worried about how that would happen with Glenn and I out of the country (and ironically in our media-vac location).  We have been cautious and always made sure to have a power of attorney in place for Sidney's care whenever we leave the country. But really, we had always assumed it was just a precautionary measure. To ask someone to have to shoulder that burden just seemed unfair.

Minutes ticked by as I thought about the other times I had waited for news about about Sidney.  I remember sitting in the car during my lunch hour in a Norfolk parking garage waiting for the promised phone call from my endocrinologist to tell me whether our IVF attempt had been successful.  It was, and little did I know at the time, but that phone call would trigger  days and hours of fateful waiting.  When Sidney was two days old we had to endure an entire weekend of waiting for the results of a brain  scan.  Six weeks later it was waiting for more lab results after a botched spinal tap.  At one year it was a  Christmas Eve in the emergency room with dehydration.  You get the picture...............

Exactly two hours after the phone call I got another one.  No medi-vac or hospitalization necessary as Sidney was diagnosed with strep throat and was about to be started on antibiotics.  He would be on the mend and I felt like I could breath again.  I was assured that there was no need for me to return home since he was in the care of his loving nanny who was doing everything she could to take care of him.  After all, she had raised two boys of her own and she is much calmer in these situations than I am.

The report on Sidney this morning is that he is back to his usually happy self. He slept through the night, ate a big breakfast, has been drinking lots of juice, and most importantly no longer has a fever.  It will be a long two days until we return home on Friday but we will all get through it.  And I think the nanny has earned herself a raise.

Me and my little buddy exploring the Norwegian fjords last summer

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


As a mother I know I put my own health concerns last.  Often I will ignore the pain or the ache that doesn't feel just right when it is my own body.  I make sure Sidney attends his well child check-ups on schedule, has all of his vaccines as the appropriate times, and I do everything I can to make sure he is healthy.  Glenn is a harder nut to crack.  The man is adverse to doctors and medicine and feels that "drinking a glass of water" is the cure for all that ails us.  Because he is active duty military and is required to endure a flight physical once a year, I feel better knowing that a doctor will check him out on an annual basis.  As for myself, I have noticed my own share of increased aches, pains, and things that just don't feel right in recent years and have been making a concerted effort to visit the doctor when something feels wrong with my body.  But it is equally as important to not wait until something is obviously wrong before going to the doctor.  As we all know, preventive health care is the key to staying healthy.  And as a woman of a certain age, part of that preventive health care includes annual mammograms.

No one says they are fun.  As anyone who has stood in a cold room and had their naked breast manipulated and squished between an even colder press can tell you, mammograms can be down right uncomfortable.  But not enduring those brief moments of discomfort can bring about even longer lasting, and often preventable pain and suffering.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, breast cancer is the second most common cancer amongst women in the United States with 211,731women being diagnosed and close to 41,000 women dying from the cancer in 2009 alone. This translates into roughly one in eight American women receiving a breast cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives.  (Take a look around the room and see exactly what one in eight looks like).  Family history is a strong indicator of being more susceptible to being diagnosed with breast cancer but 85% of breast cancer diagnoses occur in women without a family history of the disease.  But the statistics are not all grim.  The earlier cancer is detected the greater the survival rates.  There are approximately 2.6 million breast cancer survivors in the United States alone.  The easiest way to detect early breast cancer is through a mammogram.  And thanks to increased breast cancer awareness campaigns and increased access to affordable health care, just over 61% of American women have had a mammogram.  We still have a long way to go but each procedure is a step, or squish, in the right direction.

October may be Breast Cancer Awareness Month but that doesn't mean you have to wait another eight months to get checked out. Do it now.  I've had my exam for the year and I will continue to do self exams every month until my next mammogram.  I challenge all of my woman friends to do the same.  For my male friends, encourage the women in your life to do it as well.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sickies On A Plane

The only think I hate more than being sick is being around others who are sick.   (There is a good reason I'm not a nurse).  Ironically, I would rather have an extreme 24-hour bug than a cold that sticks around for weeks.  With a sickness that really knocks me out, I can justify laying low and staying in bed until I recuperate.  Colds on the other hand, are just strong enough to make me feel ill but not potent enough to hide in bed for days on end.  And that means exposing myself to others while I am sick.  And that is something I just hate doing.

It is obviously cold season here in Europe and the strain currently circulating seems to be particularly vicious since once it sets it, it just continues to linger.  Sidney came down with the bug earlier this week and by Saturday both Glenn and I felt the first signs of illness coming on.  Sunday morning we both woke up with full fledged colds.  We are lucky that this is the first time this year we have been sick but the timing couldn't be worse.  Because Sunday was also the day we were flying from Tirana to Frankfurt, I felt an extra sense of dread.  It is bad enough to be sick but to be sick and fly is the worst thing I can imagine.  Flying only exasperates my symptoms plus I think it is just flat rude to expose everyone else to my germs.  I hate being around myself when I am hacking and wheezing so why would anyone else have to endure the same fate?  I shouldn't have worried though since it seemed as though everyone else on both of our flights already had some sort of cold.

I'm not necessarily a germ-a-phobe but the thought of being trapped in an airplane with all of that coughing and sneezing made me physically ill.  I had armed myself with Day-quil and lots of fluids before boarding the plane but the dry air just exasperated my symptoms. By the time we landed in Vienna I felt horrible and the mad dash from the end of one terminal to the end of another did nothing to help the way I felt.  During the flight to Frankfurt I felt even worse but I'm not sure whether it was my own symptoms or hearing everyone else that bothered me more.  And I knew everyone on the plane was sick since Lufthansa's beverage cart was depleted of juice and water while the beer and wine sat virtually untouched.  (If you've ever flown on an afternoon or evening Lufthansa flight you know what an anomaly this is).

Today I feel even worse than I did yesterday.  I spent the day attending a series of medical appointments where everyone I encountered seemed as sick as I feel.  I guess misery loves company and I almost, just almost, found myself not being bothered by the wheezing and hacking people around me in the waiting room.  My one hope now is that this cold disappears before I have to fly home on Friday.  Here's to lots of fluids and vitamin C.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Breaking News.......Snow Is Coming!

When did the weather become breaking news?  I'm not talking about anticipated mega storms along the lines of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, or the EF5 tornado that destroyed Joplin, Missouri in 2011.  I'm thinking more about events I would consider normal seasonal weather.  For example, let's talk about snow.  While a snowstorm would be considered unusual in Florida, the same storm in the Midwest or New England in February is normal.  It is winter after all and snow is to be expected.  So why does all this winter weather seem to be making national headlines recently?

Perhaps the Weather Channel is to blame for the weather related feeding frenzy.  After all, with an entire television channel devoted to the coverage of world weather twenty-four hours a day, there is obviously an audience for such reporting.  But I can understand the weather channel reporting on impending storms and weather related events.  In the end, that is their line of business.  What I find the most curious, however, is mainstream media channels, from CNN and FOX to CBS and NBC buying into the weather hype.  Are there really so few more pressing news stories that these networks can afford to dispatch their reporters to stand in a Home Deport parking lot for hours and wait for the storm that may or may not ever materialize? Is it just me or does every approaching storm get tagged with an cute moniker than the previous ones?  How many "Storms of the Century" have been reported on? I would guess that in this century alone we are probably up to 13.  There is no denying that Americans love media hype so that might explain this January's Nemo or the Snow-a-geddon of past Octobers.  I guess  that repeatedly talking about a fancily named storm is more likely to draw in viewers than a brief news clip on yet another snow event.  But to me, all of this is just so strange.

But now I return to my original question.  Why is snow of a measurable yet not recording breaking amount in the middle of the winter a national media event?  Perhaps our obsession with the weather stems in part from our heavily scheduled lives.  As a culture we seem to believe that we can control just about everything but the harnessing of Mother Nature continues to be one of the few things that eludes us.  Are we obsessed with the weather because we can't control it?  Turning on the news recently I heard that an airport in Minnesota had been briefly closed because of snow.  This closure had inconvenienced travelers and disrupted travel across parts of the Mid West.  Um, this is February in Minneapolis so why should we expect anything other than snow?  Shouldn't a state that far north be prepared for the arrival of snow?  Didn't anyone else read Little House on the Prairie as a child?  Snowstorms happen in the winter.  Yes the storms can temporarily inconvenience us but we recover and move on.  Regardless of the size of the storm and contrary to media reports, it is not Armageddon and we do recover.

But all this talk of snow now has me wanting a snow day.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Warsaw Pact Reunion

Each month the Tirana Military Attache Association, the odd conglomerate of military attaches posted to Albania, gathers together for a social event.  The intent of these gatherings is to provide an opportunity for military attaches and their spouses to get together in a social setting.  Throughout the course of the month the men (yes, all of the attaches here are men and in this machismo driven environment, I can't imagine it being any other way) work together and the wives will have a group coffee or two, but this is the single event that brings us all together under one roof.

Collectively we are an odd group comprised of mostly former Warsaw Pact countries with a smattering of others (Italy, China, Turkey, and the United States) thrown in for diversity.  Perhaps it is the state of the current world economy or because of Albania's less than significant role in world affairs but there are only eight attaches in residence here in Tirana.  Our already low numbers were further reduced this past year by the financial crisis in Hungary causing the Hungarian attache to close up his office and move home.  We may be a small group but by the end of each evening we are a lively one.

Each month a different country hosts the social event but for the most part these events essentially follow the same formula.  We meet in a local restaurant for a cocktail hour that has the men standing in one group and the women in another sipping sparkling wine or the host country's local fire water (which for some reason always seems to be a version of raki).  We mingle in our respective groups until we gather around a table large enough to accommodate thirty to forty people.  The hosts sit in the center and the rest of us gather around arranging ourselves near the people we enjoy spending time with the most.  (I can attest to the fact that if you sit next to someone who does not share the same languages, these evening are very long affairs).  Because there are never tables that can accommodate this many people, the restaurants cobble together enough smaller tables to form one long one.  For some reason, each month I always find myself straddling two table legs but if I am lucky the two abutting tables are the same height.  And then the eating and toasting begins.  Platter after platter of food arrives at the table and just when you think you can't eat any more, the entrees arrive.  The eating is only punctuated by numerous toasts and cheers lead by just about every man present.  Since the people of many of the countries represented in our group suffered greatly during Communist times, and experienced food shortages, I always wonder if the copious amounts of food are symbolic of the fact that the host countries now have plenty of food.  (With the exception of the United States, the only country that doesn't always over feed us is Italy).

The latest trend over the past year has been the inclusion of live music and dancing during dinner.  Sometimes we just watch the dancers; one particularly strange dinner included a combination of "American" country western dancers that moved more like strippers, traditional Albanian folk dancers, and a very bad belly dancer (no, this event was not hosted by Americans, Turks, or Albanians).  Other times we are active participants in the dancing. Have you ever tried to learn a lively Turkish circle dance with a belly full of too much grilled meat?  Some of the singers have been better than others but inevitably they are flashily dressed Albanian women whose repertoire includes American pop music from the 1980s (think Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson) and Russian folk songs.  The evening inevitably starts with the American songs being crooned quietly but quickly escalates as both the guests and the performers consume glass after glass of raki.  By the time dessert arrives not only are we over filled with food but the music is at a deafening level that all but prohibits normal conversation.   By this point American or even western music has been thrown by the wayside in favor of nothing by traditional Eastern European songs that have everyone clapping their hands and stomping their feet.  As one friend wryly commented to me, these events are a Warsaw Pact reunion.  The noise level only continues to rise until the event abruptly ends upon our departure.  For some strange reason, everyone follows the lead of the Americans so when we leave the party ends.

Glenn and I are slated to host the social event in April.  As was the case last year, the event will continue long after its designated end time since if we don't leave (and as hosts we can't) no one is really sure when to go.  Our plans for the evening are still developing but we're thinking that karaoke might be in order.  After all what is more American in format while allowing each represented country to sing to their true colors?  Of course, if we follow this route as the hosts we would be required to kick off the singing with an American classic and that might result in an ugly international incident.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

On the Road To Sequestration

Sequestration.  Its been the buzz word filling the U.S. news, conversations in the Embassy cafeteria, and work staff meetings for weeks and the frenzy is only picking up speed.  How will a sequestration effect me? Glenn and I are both federal employees so will we both still have jobs?  And what the heck is a sequestration any way?  (Per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a sequestration is defined as the act of seizing or placing something in custody---which in this case would be the seizing custody of the federal budget and its lack of money).  Will both political parties reach a mutually agreeable resolution before the witching hour sets in?  Will a palatable compromise be reached that keeps both jobs and public services in tact?   I think the answer to all of the above questions is "it depends."

Just as no one seems to be able to answer these perplexing questions, no one can agree on who is at fault for America's current fiscal crisis.  Republicans blame the Democrats while Democrats blame the Republicans.  Some say the problem lies with the current politicians in Washington while others say the problems started during previous administrations.  Blaming the opposite party and one's predecessors seems to be the only thing that everyone can agree upon. However, laying blame doesn't bring about the desperately needed resolution and as the countdown clock continues to tick away, the potential realities of this crisis inch closer to becoming a reality.

On an individual level I'm not sure how a sequestration would actually effect  me.  I am a part time employee of the Department of State and the message I have been receiving from my employer is that furloughs are unlikely to happen at our Embassy.  There is the caveat that if furloughs were to take place we would all receive thirty day advance notices before any action was taken. Because I am only a part time employee and my income is essentially our family's "play" money, my being furloughed wouldn't drastically effect us.  We would cut down on our travel, perhaps eliminate a dinner or two out, and yes, reduce my internet shopping, but I think we would essentially escape unscathed.  Glenn is an active duty military member. Given his current position it is unlikely that he would be furloughed but one never knows.  One never knows.

I would hazard a guess that all federal agencies are developing contingency plans for the "what if" moment.  Some, like the Department of Defense, are already making those "what if" moments a reality and taking otherwise drastic measures in preparation for the worst case budget scenario.  The recent "indefinite delay" i.e. cancellation of the deployment of the Harry S. Truman Strike Group,  has not only reduced the U.S. Navy presence in the Persian Gulf by half but left thousands of families in upheaval.  From cancelled apartment leases to moves and general mounting uncertainty, many military families are already experiencing the effects of the looming sequestration and are left wondering what will happen next.  (Yes, as military families it is ingrained in us that we must be flexible and ready to face the unexpected, but this is still an unprecedented turn of events).  Immediately on the heels of this aborted deployment came word that major repairs of ships would be delayed.  Contracts for ship repairs or new construction have been cancelled and the trickle down effect has and will continue to have drastic negative effects on states that are already struggling in these fragile economic times.   Civilian Department of Defense contractors, of which there are close to 800,000, are being told to prepare for a 20% reduction in their salaries over a six month period.  For most families, this reduction in pay will have a drastic impact on their quality of life.  Orders, the official paperwork that tells military members what jobs they are moving to next and allows families to make plans for relocations, school transfers, and securing housing, are also on hold pending budget resolutions.  Combine this with reductions in health care access and childcare services, cuts that are already being implemented, and the daily way of life for thousands of families is changing.  What does all of this mean for us as individuals?  More importantly, what message is this sending to the rest of the world?  (Who, if conversations with my international friends and my reading of foreign newspaper articles are any indication, are all watching these developments closely).

How is it that the most powerful nation in the world is finding itself in this situation?  It should be unimaginable but unfortunately, what used to be unimaginable is now a reality.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Lolly Pop Men

Lolly pop men.  Because of their propensity to stand in the street waving large wooden lolly pop like wands, that is how I think of the police in Albania.  You see them standing at intersections or along roadways balancing a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone on their shoulder while waving their lolly pop wand in a fashion that gives me little indication as to what I should actually be doing.  Frantic side to side motions or rapid up and down ones; I have yet to learn the real intent of their motions and from what I have observed, other drivers are equally as clueless since rarely are police directives obeyed by the ordinary Albanian driver.  I have seen more than one irate officer use their lolly pop to pummel the hood of an offending vehicle but even that action seems to do little to stop the bad behavior.  Put the wand waving officer in the middle of an intersection, or better yet a traffic circle where vehicle flow is supposed to occur naturally, and chaos is sure to ensue. Whenever we approach a bottle necked intersection we joke that there must be a police officer in the middle of the mess and more often than not, we are right.

Albanian police officers seem to collectively lack situational awareness.  They will stand in the middle of an intersection surrounded by oncoming traffic and seem oblivious to the approaching danger.  And given the way Albanian drivers drive, there is a lot of danger.  Maybe they are distracted by their buzzing cell phones and hand rolled cigarettes.  But at the same time the very same officer will suddenly spring into action and stop the very last vehicle in a long chain of traffic to allow our car to make a left hand turn onto our street. Now this being Albania and Albanian drivers, we only have a fifty percent chance that the oncoming car will actually stop.  The car is just as apt to swerve around the officer and continue on its merry way nearly side swiping our vehicle in the process as it is to stop.  And as I learned during our earlier fender bender experience, each police officer has a very specific job that they must not stray from. If they are assigned to traffic duty to catch speeders, that is the only thing they can enforce.  The officer can neither investigate an accident that might happen right in front of them (or perhaps because of them) nor can they stop a driver who is clearly violating the law--unless it is for speeding. The police officer will merely shrug their shoulders at the offense and return to monitoring the road for speeding drivers. 

When you do hear people talk about the police here it is rarely in a positive light. I often hear of police eliciting bribes from unsuspecting drivers (and have witnessed this first hand) or as is probably common throughout former Communist countries, that the police are merely agents of the state.  Perhaps this is why they don't receive the respect they deserve.  Because of the proximity of our house to two embassies and two ambassador residences, both day and night our neighborhood is flooded with police whose job it is to protect these foreign entities and dignitaries.  These mostly elderly officers (and for some reason it seems as though most police officers in Albania are old) spend the day strolling the street and loitering in groups as they smoke and talk and yes, guard their posts.  Their physical stature alone makes me question their abilities to deter crime and I have little faith that a foot pursuit would result in anything more than a heart attack.  However, they are probably the kindest group of Albanians we have ever encountered.  They smile and wave as we drive by each morning, greet us upon our return, and on more than one occasion have caught Sidney as he flees out of our yard.  They smile and chat with Sidney in Albanian as he peddles his tricycle by them.  Their presence does deter the young boys on our street from causing too much trouble and they make sure that speeding traffic slows when Sidney is outside playing.  (Maybe Albanian police are cross trained after all.........................................).

But in all seriousness, I can only imagine how under appreciated an Albanian police officer must feel in a country where authority is neither respected or revered.  The sight of the uniform, however haphazard it may be, or a police car that may or may not have strobe lights (or gas), does little to draw the attention of the people on the street.  I was raised to get out of the way of flashing lights and blaring sirens.  Here, drivers either ignore the alarms or use them as an opportunity to squeeze into the empty space that was created by the handful of foreign drivers who were trying to make way for the approaching emergency vehicles. Policing in Albania is also an especially dangerous profession.  Since we have been in Albania I have heard of the shooting and killing of several officers in the line of duty.  I'm not sure the embarrassingly low salaries and lack of respect make what should be a coveted and respected job worth the danger and aggravation.  But in the end, what becomes of a society where law and order are ignored?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My Mind Is A-Twirling

Yes, it has finally happened to me.  For the past few days I just haven't had it in me to blog.  Sure I've been tired and between home and work have felt pulled in a hundred and one directions as of late.  I've been feeling stretched thinner than ever but overall this isn't so very different from how I have felt during much of the past year. There is something very unique (for me at least) about what I've been experiencing of late.  While I've been continuing to carve out the time each day so that I can sit down in front of the computer to write, nothing is happening. Nada. Nothing. Nil.  For what is probably the first time in years, I have writer's block.  I had always heard about this happening to other people but had never experienced it for myself.  Until now that is.

I still have numerous ideas floating around in my head.  Perhaps that is the problem since, while I have all of these thoughts, I am unable to type them out in any coherent fashion.  For the past three days I've been sitting down, turning on the computer and struggling to write.  And much to my surprise, nothing has been coming out.  The first day I thought it was a fluke so I let it slide.  The second day was more of the same.  I've tried writing about serious issues as well as humorous ones but both have yielded the same disappointing results.  I quickly lost track of the number of topics I tried to write about over the past couple of days only to delete what I had written after only a couple of sentences typed over hours.  The more I tried, the more forced and ergo, disappointing my results.

In my attempt to break free I'm writing about not being able to write. Ironically, this seems to be working for me.  In the past fifteen minutes I've typed out more coherent words than I have since last week.  Have I finally broken through?  Only time will tell for sure but I'm taking the fact that this is the first time since Saturday that I've actually finished a post as a good sign.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Thank You For NOT Smoking

Albania is a country of smokers.  With approximately 40% of the population admitting to smoking, Turkey is the only other European country with a higher percentage of tobacco addicts.   Despite the government passing a  2007 ban on smoking in public places, Albanians continue to smoke everywhere.  Whether it be in restaurants and cafes, on buses, or in shopping malls, the sight of lit cigarettes in public is all too common.

The Government of Albania loves to pass laws.  These laws, however, are rarely if ever, enforced which begs the question of why have laws if there is no intention of enforcing them.  Perhaps it is because on paper, it looks good to the rest of the developed world to have laws on the books. It sounds logical. Since public smoking bans exist throughout much of Europe, it would make sense that a country (Albania), who is so eager to be accepted by her Western and Central European counterparts, would attempt to emulate their approach to smoking.  But the key difference is that in the rest of Europe, the smoking ban is enforced.  In Albania, it clearly is not.  When I was in language class prior to arriving in Albania, I remember my tutor telling me that despite the ban, smoking in public was prevalent.  In my American naivety, I recall questioning how, if it was a law, that the ban could not be uniformly enforced.  I just couldn't wrap my mind around the blatant disregard of the law I was hearing about.  And then my plane landed in Albania for the first time.

I was pleasantly surprised to see no smoking signs adorning the doors of restaurants and other public establishments.  I was quickly disgusted, however, when I realized that the signs were mere wall decorations (or, if they were in the form of table tents, vessels for collecting discarded ashes).  During our first week here I remember walking through the courtyard of a local shopping mall and seeing three young men lounging directly under a no smoking sign with cigarettes lit.  One of the offenders was dressed in the uniform of the mall's security guards.  I began to wonder who would enforce the laws if those who had the enforcement powers were offenders themselves.  Over the next few weeks and months I realized that despite their non-smoking signs, restaurants kept a ready supply of ash trays handy.  More often than not, the ash trays were a regular part of table settings.  Just as often, we will remove the ash tray from our table upon sitting down only to have it be quickly replaced by an eager to serve waiter (perhaps the only time waiters in Albania move quickly and are eager to please).  Attempts to ask waiters to tell other diners to extinguish their cigarettes are met with blank stares or shrugs and on more than one occasion I have seen the restaurant staff themselves smoking.  In most establishments, the waiters will at least put their cigarettes down before waiting on us but even at a nicer dinner out last night, the host/manager/extra waiter hovered by our table all night with a cigarette dangling from his yellowed fingertips.  Can you say eeeewwwww?

Just about every shopping mall or larger department store contains at least one cafe.  I have noticed that most of these places have their requisite no smoking sign posted and go as far as not providing ash trays for their patrons. That does not stop the smokers though; used coffee cups, saucers, or even newspapers (yes newspapers!) can serve as an ash tray in a flash.  For my Washington D.C. area friends, can you imagine patrons smoking in the food court of the Pentagon City Mall or in the lobby of a Smithsonian Museum?  And yes, I've heard more than one Lufthansa flight attendant reprimand a potential smoker on an airplane.  The sight of a man peddling a bicycle while puffing a cigarette is a regular occurrence as is police standing around in huddles with plumes of smoke overhead.  This is all a part of the smoky reality here in Albania while people wonder while asthma and air pollution are so prevalent.

So how do I cope?  Sadly, a smoker or two inside of a restaurant no longer makes me shudder.  I will try to avoid sitting near them but that doesn't guarantee that the next patron to enter won't light up at the abutting table.  Ironically, sitting at outdoor tables tends to be even smokier than dining inside so the decision to make is whether fresh or stale cigarette offends me more.  I still cringe at the sight of plumes of smoke filling a store or shopping mall hallway and I hold my breath and move extra fast when I walk through the designated smoking area at the Embassy (which for some reason, while outside, is adjacent to the building's main doorway).  I relish dining in the handful of restaurants here in Tirana where smoke free dining is assured (and make a point to patronize these establishments as a way of showing my support for their willingness to enforce the national law) but I wish that the rest of Albania could figure out how to stub out the butts.   I suppose this is asking a lot however, since with the large number of unenforced laws on the books, it is unlikely that enforcing the smoking ban is a top priority for anybody.  So I beg of Albanians across the country on a personal level that they please don't smoke.  Or at least don't smoke in public.  Don't do it for me but do it for yourselves, your friends and family, your country and your children.  Please??  We'd all be better off if it could be done.

Friday, February 15, 2013

On A Treadmill

Sometimes I feel as though I am living my life on a treadmill or perhaps in an Albanian version of Bill Murray's 1993 film Groundhog Day.  Don't get me wrong; we are experiencing all sorts of fabulous things both here in Albania and throughout Europe, but there are many days and weeks when the grind just feels endless and that no matter how much effort or work I put into something, I am never able to see tangible results.  This has been one of those weeks (or months, or even years depending upon how you look at it).  Maybe it is the fact that this has been a full five-day work week; something that do to holidays and travel schedules we haven't experienced in awhile.  Perhaps it is because we've hosted two dinners in our home and attended two outside events in the past seven days.  It could be because this is February, traditionally a short and dreary, yet brutal month.  Or more likely, it is a combination of all of these factors.

I've been working on and planning numerous projects and activities, both personal and work related, for several months now.  They encompass things from the mundane to the exciting and everything in between. All have entailed a lot of work, and other than an insurmountable level of frustration, I have very little to show for my efforts.  I understand that with a three year old at home I have to provide repeated reminders about the need to always say please and thank you and to pick up after himself when he is done, but I don't understand why I have to repeat similar messages to fully functioning adults.  Why is it so hard to abide by deadlines and commit to attending events? My time is no less valuable than that of the next person. It sounds silly but lately this has been one of my biggest challenges and frustrations. (I have discovered a funny thing this past week, however.  In an environment where the request for a timely R.S.V.P. is generally ignored, if I don't want to set myself up for disappointment, I'm better off not asking for a commitment ahead of time. It makes planning a bit more difficult but I'm working on being more flexible and accepting the fact that I might have an audience of two or a room filled to capacity.  As a part of this new and improved flexibility plan, in the past few weeks I've been omitting the R.S.V.P. request on invitations unless it is an absolute necessity. The surprising result?  My in-box is flooded with attendance confirmations I never even asked for.  If I had know this was all it took to get a head count, I would have started omitting those four little letters a long time ago).

As part of my paid employment at the Embassy I am charged with planning and implementing social activities and excursions for Mission members. My office plans these events based on requests and suggestions from our community members.  A lot of behind the scenes work goes into pulling off even the smallest of events so by the time we officially launch an idea to the community, we have invested many hours into planning the details. In this short month alone, we've had to cancel several events due to a sudden lack of interested or commitment from community members.  For other events we've had to alter the details in order to accommodate people which I am alright with on occasion, but some requests are just impossible to meet.  Regardless of the decisions we make, we can never please everyone, someone will always complain loudly to others, and still more people will just make life difficult for me because of the decisions I've made.  I know this is my job but at the end of some days it feels as though I've put in a lot of effort for naught.

We live a big house with a proportional amount of problems.  Whether it be the toilet that refuses to stop running, the lack of water pressure, or the heating split pack that freezes solid then sounds like a freight train is roaring through our living room, even the simplest of repairs require numerous work order submissions, an equivalent number of visits from the landlord, and perhaps eventually an adequate repair (if we are lucky).  It is both exhausting and frustrating as is the process of trying to renew my Commonwealth of Virginia driver's license.  I can't renew online again since that is how I did it last time (in a vain attempt to keep the much younger and flattering picture of myself), yet I don't want to have to go back to the States to get it done. I should be able to get an extension as a military dependent living overseas but after several phone calls and emails I'm being told that I can't since I don't have a physical address in Virginia. Apparently paying income tax to the state is not enough to establish  the residency that I have had for close to a decade.  I know it can be done but I am in the midst of an uphill battle with no end in sight.  And because it seems to be the way of life recently, even the more enjoyable things are becoming productions.  What was supposed to be a fun girl's get away with a close friend got temporarily hijacked into a larger international affair.  We're now back to our original plan but this is only after over a month of frustrating conversations and negotiations involving talk of dates, locations, and expenses.  (I guess because this issue has been resolved and we just booked our tickets I can chalk this up to my single success of the month).

Not all weeks or months are this bad and that is what gives me hope to keep moving forward.  Eventually I'm going to have to fall off of this treadmill and actually have results to show for all of my efforts.  It probably won't be tomorrow or perhaps not even next week, but eventually  it will happen. I know it will.  I know it will. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Culture of Zosia

My earlier post about culture clashes got me thinking about my own "culture" and where I am coming from.  I'm not talking about geography and familial status; rather I've been contemplating what are the values that I hold near and dear to me. What are the important traits I try to encompass and like to see in the people I am close to? And how to I react when my values are called into question or challenged by someone whose views differ from mine? I'd like to think that I am always accepting of other people's views but deep down, I know that many times I'm not.  Sometimes I am able to look the other way but other times I just can't.  On the same hand, I know there are times when I must compromise on my own values because of others.  Obviously it isn't always a clear and easy decision.  Sometimes I am able to easily move on but other times the issues nag at my conscience long after they should have dissipated.  Perhaps it is these lingering issues that are the ones that must mean the most to me.  

So how do I identify myself?  I'm a mother and military spouse (and a Navy spouse at that, because in my opinion, it does make a difference), but I'm also an individual whose fundamental identity was shaped long before I acquired these two other identifiers. With this primary identity comes my core values that shape not only how I live my life but also how I view the world around me.  Again, its not good or bad it is just what it is.  But after a lot of reflection, here's my list of what makes me tick:

  • Above all other things, I believe that respect is the most important value someone can demonstrate.  This includes respect for ones elders and people in positions of authority but I also believe that everyone deserves to be treated with respect.  After all, what does anyone have to gain from being rude?  Being respectful of others was important to me long before I became a Navy spouse but its importance has been driven home to me even more so in recent years.  The military structure works because of respect.  You don't always have to agree with or even like people in your chain of command but you must respect them.  And in the Navy, perhaps more so than in other branches, respect is conferred on spouses because of their husband or wife's official rank. This means that while I might not like Glenn's commanding officer's spouse, I must show her the same level of respect that Glenn bestows upon his boss and vice versa.  Like it or not, it when the chain of command in all aspects is respected, it works.  When it isn't havoc is likely to eventually ensue.
  • Having manners never goes out of style. In today's casual lifestyle, the traditional courtesies of instead of just showing up, bringing a hostess gift rather than arriving at the door empty handed, and promptly writing thank you notes often falls by the wayside.  Call me old school but I believe that these things are still important.  I recognize that many people don't abide by these standards but as both a regular hostess and guest, I always do my best to model this behavior that even my grandmother would be proud of.  And as a continuation of practicing good manners, dressing appropriately is a must.  If you are invited to a pool party dress for a pool party but please don't wear the bathing suit and flip flops to a formal reception.
  • Be on time.  (Honestly, I struggle with this one more often than I like to admit).  Whether for a business meeting, a get together with friends, or work related dinner, punctuality is important.  Lufthansa isn't going to hold the plane for you so why should you expect others to do the same?  As a hostess I'm not sure which irks me more, arriving so late that the food has turned cold or arriving so early that I'm still in the final throes of preparation when you ring the bell.  Both are just wrong and can only be compounded by not submitting a R.S.V.P. in the first place.  The start time isn't a mere suggestion, its the requirement.
  • I am a person of my word.  When I agree to do something I see it through regardless of how arduous or unpleasant it might become.  Whether it be jobs, friendships, or simply agreeing to volunteer my time, if I say I'll do it, I'm going to do it until the end.   Many times the best of intentions go awry but that isn't a reason to back out of a commitment.  Take a moment to think about how it feels to be left hanging when everyone cancels or doesn't show. Is it fair?
  • Call it like it is and be honest.  It may turn some people off but I completely believe in being forthright.  I'm not talking about intentionally hurting someone's feelings but I'm never going to fake it for the sake of making someone feel better.  If someone asks me for an honest opinion, they are going to get it.  If I see a problem, I'm going to pursue a resolution on my own rather than looking the other way or asking someone else to act on my behalf.  I believe that as adults we need to act responsibly and I try my best to be the good neighbor, friend, or co-worker. 
  • I am open minded.  One only has to look at a list of my Facebook friends, all but a handful of whom I know personally, to see how diverse my friendships are.  On any given day my Facebook page will simultaneously display comments supporting and denying gay rights or friends advocating for bans on handguns along side campaigns for arming every school teacher with their own personal weapon.  During the recent presidential campaign,  postings from Romney supporters were sandwiched between those from Obama and Ron Paul volunteers.  Do I agree with everything I read?  Absolutely not, but I can respect where each person is coming from.  I firmly believe that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, regardless of how far it may differ from my own.  Besides I've learned a lot about the world from all of my Facebook friends.
  • Outside of my own home, I abstain from heated discussions regarding topics like religion and politics.  If someone feels so strongly about an issue it is doubtful that even my most persuasive argument would change their mind.  I certainly have strong opinions about many issues regarding both religion and politics but I learned a long time ago that pushing the issue was more apt to turn my friends into enemies and not change anything than it was to create a convert to my way of thinking.  So I keep an open, if slightly bemused at times, mind and sit back and listen to the debates.  Often I learn something but rarely am I persuaded.  (If in doubt about this theory, see the above bullet point regarding being open minded).
So for better or worse, this is what makes me tick.  Ignore this post if you disagree, "like" it if it is right up your alley, or turn a blind eye if you are indifferent.  I'm being honest with myself and my readers and at the end of the day, that is what matters the most to me.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Culture Clash

Clash:  To come into conflict.  Synonyms:  Collide, conflict, discord.

Culture:  The customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a race, religious, or social group.  Synonyms:  couth, civilization, refinement.**

Living overseas I find myself experiencing a culture clash of sorts on a daily basis.  It seeps into my world in both expected and unexpected ways and smacks me in the face when I least expect it.  Yes, I expect a difference in cultures between Albanians and the ex-pats living in Albania and even the further clash between each nationality of ex-pats residing here (or anywhere for that matter).  Just as there is a difference between Americans---geographic location, education level, or socio-economic status are just a few of the many influences that shape our individual views of the world around us---the same is true for Albanians or any other nationality for that matter.  These differences of opinion are what make us unique and in my opinion, make us interesting.  How boring would life be if we all thought, acted and reacted the same way to issues as they arose?  But it is these very differences of opinion that often causes the culture clashes I have been pondering.

From an outsiders perspective, many people probably look at the Americans working at our Embassy as being a homogeneous lot.  (These are probably many of the same people who think that everyone in America is rich and all of America is like Hollywood since that is, after all, what they see in the movies).  On a more realistic note, reasoning might predict that since we all work for the same government and speak the party line that we therefore must all agree.  Right?  Wrong.  We may all come to work each day under the auspices of being employees of the U.S. government, but we are all individuals.  Everything from our work ethics and religious values to personal beliefs, educational backgrounds and pre-conceptions of others may differ in as many ways as there are employees.  Because we are individuals, try as we may, it is impossible to check our personal beliefs and values at the door just because we enter our office.  And I believe that having these differing opinions helps us all do our jobs better.

Just as all of America is not Hollywood and not all Americans are rich, all U.S. government employees are not the same.  We may work for different agencies within our Federal government but the differences are much deeper.  Some of us may even work for the same three lettered executive branch agency as our neighbor or cube mate but our views on life and even our jobs may differ as well.   For example, the Department of Defense (DOD), the three lettered agency I am the most familiar with, is not the homogeneous behemoth of an organization many people think it is.  More than once I've had people tell me that all the military does (or should do) is build bombs, shoot guns, and blow things up and that everyone who is in the military wants to go to war.  Umm....not so; consider for a moment who would actually be fighting these wars we apparently all crave.  Each military branch--Navy, Marines, Army, and Air Force--all has their own missions, values, and subcultures.  What is culturally acceptable in one branch might be looked down upon in another.  Rank lines that are blurry in one branch are razor sharp in another while the responsibilities delegated to each soldier and sailor may vary depending upon their unit.  It isn't so much a debate as to whether this is right or wrong, rather it is just the way it is.  After all, who are we to call into question whether one organization's culture is or isn't acceptable?  This is an example of a single federal agency so just imagine the issues and debates that arise when you throw multiple agencies into the conversation.  And sometimes these very debates unknowingly (?) bring a cultural clash to a head.

A clash of cultures doesn't have to be all bad.  Rather, it can serve as an important opportunity for learning.  Before you react to something that moves you--whether in a positive or a negative way-- stop and think.  Consider where the person is coming from and what might be driving their actions and statements.  Perhaps it is their personal values, the culture of their organization, or a combination of the two that is driving their response.  These differing viewpoints might bring an important new perspective to the discussion or they may reconfirm your original opinion.  It isn't so much an issue about right versus wrong; it is about keeping an open mind and accepting individual cultures for what they are.  And after all, if we are a society where individuality is so valued, we must embrace all of the cultural differences that accompany it.

** As defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

When Life Gives You Lemons......

Make lemonade. Or lemon bread.  Or lemoncello.  Or lemon cake.  You get the idea.  And this is exactly what I did this weekend.  Its citrus season here in the Mediterranean.  Here in Albania you don't have to look far to see trees filled with the bright yellows and oranges of ripe citrus fruits.  On dreary gray days like the ones we have been experiencing as of late, the citrus are the few spots of color.

We are fortunate to have three citrus trees of our own growing in our small yard.  Our two mandarin and one lemon trees produce a fair amount of fruit.  Because everyone in the house loves them so, we end up supplementing our mandarins with ones from our local markets but our single lemon tree produces just enough of a crop to fulfill my lemon needs.  Last week I went out and picked all of the ripe fruit and had been slowing cooking my way through the pile.  A second round of preserved lemons are curing and a new batch of lemoncello is steeping in the pantry. I had a few more lemons to deal with and then we got gifted with a whole lot more!  While we have a few citrus trees, many of our Embassy families have yards that are overflowing with them.  One couple, who are departing the country soon, gifted us with a whole lot of lemons.  In fact, there are so many lemons that I've been scrambling to find good uses for all of them.

I've spent my Sunday toiling away with all things lemon.  In addition to the a fore mentioned lemon items I've made lemon bread, lemon-thyme bundt cakes, and I have a lemon spiked chicken picatta planned for tomorrow night's dinner.  I had planned to make a lemon curd, for a lemon curd ice cream, but my last four eggs are reserved for tonight's dinner of avgolemono, a Greek lemon and rice soup.  (I'm also out of flour, butter and sugar too!).  Alas, after all of this cooking, not only am I tired but I fear that tonight I'll be dreaming about I should do with my remaining two dozen lemons.  Lemonade anyone?

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Plight of the Worker Bees

Like millions of moms around the world, I'm a worker bee.  Like millions of people around the world who work outside of the home, I'm a worker bee. The job of us worker bees is to make sure the world around us functions as smoothly as it can. Inside of the home we make sure there are groceries in the house, dinner is on the table, there are clean clothes to be worn each day, house repairs are made, appointments are scheduled and kept, and family members get from Point A to Point B and back on time.  We may not be keeping clothes clean and pantries filled outside of the home but at work we are the ones who make sure schedules are kept, the right people are at meetings, speeches are written, bills are paid, and the final results look good.  It is exhausting work.  And contrary to the popular opinion of many, these things do not just magically happen.  Calendars must be juggled and synchronized while events must be planned down to the tiniest of details.  Not all events are big but more often than not the basic logistics remain the same.

Being a worker bee is exhausting but I am a worker bee because on most days I truly enjoy it.  For me there is something therapeutic about creating to-do lists then checking the items off as they are completed. Whether it be an Embassy wide event, a family vacation or a dinner party at my home, seeing my plans and hard work come to fruition brings me a sense of satisfaction. It isn't always easy, many circumstances are often out of my control and on quite a few days it feels as though I am trying to herd cats.  (Two legged, opinionated cats, but they react like cats none the less). But I do it because I like it. 

So remember, you might not see us bees but next time you step up to the podium and look out at a sea of adoring fans, take a moment to wonder who wrote your speech, staged your podium, and positioned your glass of perfectly chilled water.  Consider who issued the invitations to your party and oversaw the production and distribution of just the right amount of food.  When your paycheck automatically appears in your bank account think about how the money magically got there.   At home, consider who refilled your drawer with clean socks and how the food got to the table at the appointed dinner time.  The car pool that transported a teamful of kids to practice and back?  That car didn't drive itself.  The bathroom fairies don't replace the toilet paper roll nor do they make sure there is soap in the shower or toothpaste in the cabinet.   The freshly cut hair and clean clothes for school pictures that even Grandma approves of?  No, your seven year old did not take this upon himself to make it happen.  A worker beed did. 

 And now I'm buzzing off to make my next event look like "it just magically happened!"

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Living In A PSA World

I used to hate watching commercials; they extended what should have been a twenty-two minute television show to a full half hour and inundated me with sales pitches for products I neither had an interest in nor needed.  Our move from Norfolk to Washington resulted in our upgrading our cable television plan and with it came DVR capabilities.  I've never watched a whole lot of television but being able to skip over the commercials was pure heaven (and ironically made my television viewing more efficient).  When we first moved overseas and I was introduced to the commercial free American Forces Network (AFN) I thought it would be pure bliss.  (Because AFN is operated by the Department of Defense, airing any traditional commercials could be construed as a product endorsement and are therefore not allowed).  But then I realized that we didn't really have commercial free television; rather traditional commercials had been replaced with public service announcements which proved to be more annoying than the worst discount furniture advertisement ever was.  Plus, no commercials means no Super Bowl commercials, which in my way of thinking, is the sole reason for watching the biggest football game of the year.

So what does a Department of Defense endorsed public service announcement look like?  They are all about propaganda.  While most of the topics are serious, more often than not, the message is often lost in the bad (intentional? unintentional? I don't know what is worse) acting.  It might be a young women portraying no military spouse I have ever seen and who looks better suited for a sports bar or nail salon spot, espousing the benefits of Exchange shopping or it might be a diverse group of soldiers, sailors, and airmen urging young people to enlist.  Serious messages about domestic violence and suicide prevention are necessary but dark enough to kill the mood of even the funniest comedy.  Sometimes we you can see multi-star Generals and Admirals talking about safety abroad, family values, or command morale.  What Right Looks Like, the latest educational campaign pokes fun at the right and wrong way to approach life.  Video snippets show us how not to talk to co-workers, interact with our host nation nationals, and other etiquette related behavior then demonstrate what proper behavior looks like. Although varied and humorous or serious or inadvertently both, after a while all of these messages begin to sound and look the same.  I never thought I'd find myself longing for an obnoxious salesman yelling at me through the television screen, but I do.

Every once in a while AFN messes up and we do get a glimpse of a real U.S. based commercial.  This usually happens during live programming and the glimpse of American commercialism is a treat for sore eyes. During one particular Sunday evening football game this past fall we saw an entire Subway commercial and half of a Honda one before the screen cut to one of our regular PSA spots. Imagine our brief excitement!  When operating smoothly, however, we can expect to view a slew of PSAs at twenty and fifty after the hour.  I'm realizing that I can discuss SOFAs, the top European travel locations for military (Edelweiss Resort), and the steps we must take to prepare for retirement, but I have no idea what new products Nabisco is selling, the latest American fashion trends, or what movies are opening soon in theaters near you/us.  In conversations with my U.S. based friends many cultural references are simply lost on me.  I am both geographically and mentally separated from American culture.  Some days I miss it while others I don't.  I do, however, know "what right looks like."

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Riding the Rails in Budapest

We spent the past weekend in Budapest, Hungary. It was my second trip there but the first for Glenn and Sidney so we spent most of our time re(exploring) the City's great sights.  Thanks to Budapest's great public transportation system --in the form of a funicular, trams, trains, the underground subway, and a cog rail, we covered a lot of territory in a very short time.  We were whisked to the top of the Castle District on the Budavari Siklo, a three carriage funicular that was unlike any other I've ever ridden.  I had ridden the Budapest underground during my  previous visit.  Despite one schedule change that was only transmitted in Hungarian and resulted in my ending up in a part of the city I had not anticipated visiting, I loved their subway system.  It was immaculately clean and efficient (even the high speed escalators that whisks passengers deep into the bowels of the city moved quickly).  Most charming of all, the actual subway cars resembled something from decades ago yet were better maintained and more attractive than the new ones that grace most of America's public transportation systems.  I have to admit that on my most recent visit, I was saddened to not be able to ride any of these old fashioned cars.  Rather, it looked like we were riding in brand new subway cars that were just as efficient and well maintained.  Coming from a land with no safe public transportation, the last thing I should have been doing was complaining about it being too new!

The little engine that could
 At the suggestion of my friend Pam, and with step-by-step transfer directions provided by the concierge at our hotel, we spent Sunday riding the rails up into the Buda Hills.  With no particular end destination in mind, we took a total of four trains--the subway (via very new subway cars), a tram, a cog rail train, then finally an antique train pulled by a steam engine-- as we left the rain of the city behind us and exchanged it for rolling hills and falling snow.  This final train was the Gyermekvasut, or Children's Railroad. A relic from the Communist Era, this small railroad, under the supervision of adults, is operated by children ages 10 to 14 who do everything from selling the tickets, serving as on board conductors, and guiding the trains into the stations.  The only thing they don't actually do themselves is serve as the train engineers (and I bet that is the best job). 

The train arriving under the direction of  children
The Gyermekvasut got its start as a program of the Youth Pioneers in the 1940s and from the crisp salutes as the trains enter the stations to the sharp uniforms that are smaller versions of those worn by Hungarian State Railway employees, the railway's Communist roots are evident.  The Gyermekvasut was modeled after similar versions operating in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia with high achieving students from Budapest schools being selected for these coveted positions.  What started with a few kilometers of track eventually and work camp like youth employment conditions has expanded to its present 11.2 kilometers of narrow gauge rails and children lining up to participate in what I think is the coolest hands on work experience a child could get.

We spent a couple of hours on the train chugging through the Budapest woods.  Because it was the weekend the train was filled with other families escaping, yet experiencing the wet snow.  As the train pulled into each station it was met by at least two saluting youth and upon departure our tickets were checked and announcements were made by the child workers on board.  The service was efficient and impressive.  This simple train ride was one of the coolest ways I have played tourist in a long time. 

The boys checking out a map at the train station


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A False Sense of Security

Despite living in an ever increasing dangerous world, I feel that so many of us walk around with a false sense of security.  I know that most days I do and it takes a tragic turn of events for me to do a reality check.  I chalk it up to being an American living overseas in a country that for the most part, loves Americans.  While a predominantly Muslim country on paper, we are fortunate that Albania lacks the radical and extremist tendencies that dominate other demographically similar countries.  Albania has also has a long appreciation for the United States dating back to 1919 when President Woodrow Wilson lobbied for the protection of Albanian independence.  After a long period of self imposed isolationism, this appreciation was revived at the end of the last century due to U.S. involvement in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and it continues today thanks to the support from the United States for Albania's 2009 entrance into N.A.T.O. and our ongoing recognition of Kosovo as an independent nation.  (The population of Kosovo is approximately 93% Albanian and a very nationalistic vibe permeates the entire region).  Throughout the country, and the region, it is common to see the American flag waving alongside Albania's red and black flag.  Because of this level of adoration, it really is easy to get lulled into a false sense of security.  But we must not let this happen.

We see daily reminders that the United States is not revered throughout the world and in many countries being American diplomats can be a very dangerous proposition.  Last Friday's explosion at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey and September's attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, drives this point home.  Although Sana'a, Cairo, and Damascus are in the forefront of our recent memories,  these attacks on American Embassies and American ideals are not something new.  We only have to look to the 1998 coordinated bombings of the Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the 1983 attack in Beirut that killed 63 Embassy employees or even Ben Affleck's 2012 bio-pic Argo which portrayed the 1979 hostage situation  in Tehran.  Clearly, there is a large segment of the world that does not like us.

So how do we keep ourselves safe or is it even possible to do so?  I feel that safety is a relative term with everyone having a different interpretation of what is and isn't safe.  However, I for one, refuse to live in fear of what might happen.  The best part of living overseas is getting out and exploring our surroundings.  To not get out and see the world would mean missing out on many of life's great adventures. And it would also mean letting the "bad guys" win. I for one, refuse to let that happen.  So where do I personally go from here?  Just as I can't assume everything and every place is safe, I can't assume it isn't.  I am reminded that I need to remain alert and aware of my surroundings at all times.  If I do so I can continue to get out and explore my world.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

In the News

How do you get your news?  Print media or broadcast?  Online or in actual newspapers?  Television or radio?  A combination of the above or do you eschew the news in its entirety?  For me, its a combination of all of the media forms listed above.  When we were living stateside, I was a regular subscriber to whatever our local newspaper happened to be at the time and I had my preferred television networks from which I gleaned what was going on in the world.  In the car I would faithfully listen to NPR during my daily commute.  This media combination gave me a biased yet informed view of what was happening in my world. 
Since moving overseas, my news gathering habits have changed.  Printed newspapers are a thing of the past and even subscriptions to printed news magazines are a thing of the past since they arrive at post weeks or sometimes months after the news was breaking.  To get my newspaper fix I faithfully read the online version of the Washington Post each morning.  Of course, when I am reading it here in Albania, the clock is just striking midnight back in DC so the news I am reading isn't necessarily the news of the day.  But, in today's fast paced interconnected society, newspaper web pages post immediate updates to breaking news so their information is usually more current than what I would be watching on live television anyway.

We subscribe to local cable here in Tirana so I could watch Albanian news programs all day if I wanted to.  (Albanians are somewhat fixated with news so it seems as though every channel offers news or news commentary throughout the day).  I am able to test my language skills since the broadcasts are in Albanian although strangely translated English subtitles may scroll across the bottom of the screen for some programs.  While I am still able to watch the major American news networks--ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX and NBC the broadcasts are usually a day late.  Seriously.  The American Forces Network, or AFN, uses satellites to broadcast these mainstream channels around the world.  Some shows are actually broadcast live; NBC's Today Show which airs at 08.00 on the East Coast starts at 14.00 here in Europe.  It can be a bit disconcerting to have them discussing starting the day when we approaching quitting time, but I chalk it up to just being a part of the experience.  (So is the fact that AFN does not air any commercials since doing so could be viewed as the U.S. government endorsing certain products.  Rather we get inundated with public service messages reminding us about the need to obey local laws (Albania really doesn't have any), how to be a good neighbor and co-worker, and the most recent ethical campaign of "what right looks like").  Much to my delight I discovered that NPR is available via a hidden AFN channel and it is broadcast in real time so I can listen to Morning Edition as I prepare dinner.

Despite the limitations we have on our American television viewing, I have actually broadened my news horizons significantly since moving to Albania.  AFN broadcasts the news from all of the major networks so I can go from watching the day old evening news on FOX network then slide right into broadcasts by PBS and NBC.  It has been eye opening and fascinating to hear the same "breaking" news being reported by networks and reporters with divergent political views.  My favorite parts of these broadcasts are the commentaries.  In earlier times I would have immediately changed the channel had some of these commentators started talking.  Now, without any other option, I find myself listening and learning.  I don't always agree with what is being said but I find the viewpoints interesting none the less.  When these mainstream broadcasts are followed up by day old Daily Show and Colbert Report shows, I feel like I am getting a complete picture of what is going on in the world.

When it comes to topics that are especially controversial, whether it be a presidential campaign, Senate  hearings, or debates about gun control, it isn't always comfortable to hear adamant viewpoints that conflict with my own.  Sometimes I find myself getting angry or even surprising myself by agreeing whole heartedly but always I find myself really thinking about what is being said.  And isn't this what media is supposed to be about in the first place?  A society with open and free media should report on all opinions and sides of an issue.  We can't necessarily hear all of these sides in a single news network but when we look at all of the networks in their entirety, if we allow ourselves to, we can get a pretty complete picture of the world around us.  It may not be pretty but it is a reflection of us.

And now I have a challenge for all you.  I challenge you to sit through an entire broadcast of a news network you would normally avoid. If you are a FOX viewer, sit down and watch PBS.  If you are a PBS patron spend a half hour watching FOX.  Think about what is being said and realize that there are two (or more) sides to every story.  You probably won't agree with what you are hearing but think about it and maybe your prospective on life will broaden.