Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Random Plane Of Random People

With all of the travelling I've been doing recently I've had a lot of time to observe and think about the people around me.  Whereas airports and other public places bring random people together with only a by-chance location in common, the airplanes themselves have a much more focused audience.  This is especially true when the plane is full of people travelling to their final destination rather than making a connecting flight.  And, despite the small and obscure transfer desk at the airport, Albania is the end of the line for most passengers.  The final leg of our most recent trip had us flying from Pisa to Tirana on a discount airline.  I'm not sure if it was the discount airline or the fact we were flying out of Italy but the experience, from the passengers to the airline itself, was noticably different than flights from Munich or Vienna (the two main transfer points for flights coming into Albania). From the time we all queued (well, in reality it was more of a clustered mob than a line) at the check-in counter my first thought was that we certainly were a motley crew of passengers and this thought was repeated for the remainder of my trip.

Perhaps it was the combination of the discount airline's promotional airfares and the relatively recent (2010)implementation of visa liberalization for Albanians wishing to travel abroad, but the flight seemed to filled with many first time flyers.  From babushka wearing grandmothers to suave young men sporting colorful skinny jeans and dark sunglasses with cell phones plastered to their ears, they were easy to spot. Too many pieces of checked luggage, overstuffed or oversized carry-on bags (you have to love the way discount airlines actually measure, weigh, then turn away anything that doesn't fit within their established parameters), and yes, even the people who decided to walk across the tarmac to another waiting plane rather than board the shuttle bus with the rest of the Tirana flight were some of the things that gave them away.  This really did happen, causing Italian security personnel to have to chase them down and bring them back to the waiting bus while explaining that the plane in the distance was not their flight.  (It was clearly the wrong airline too but that is another story).  The same people crowded onto the flight and started filling seats ala Southwest Airline's, but not this airline's, opening seating plan.  The handful of business travellers and those of us who are more experienced travellers, quickly took our assigned seats, opened up our reading material, and tried to block out our surroundings.  Lacking any reading material (even the free airline magazine that should have been in the seat back pocket was missing), I looked around at my fellow passengers and wondered what was bringing them to Albania.

I would guess that half of them were clearly Albanians returning to their motherland.  It wasn't readily apparent but perhaps they had been away for a few days or a few years.  I really couldn't tell.  A few others looked like business travellers, and I would guess that we were the only ones who readily looked like Americans.  I knew why we were on the plane but what about everyone else?  There was the Nordic complexioned grungy young man toting a backpack who I can only assume was coming to Albania to do some off the beaten path exploring.  (His hiking boots and battered Lonely Planet guide to the Balkans gave him away).  There were multi-generational families travelling with young children, single men trying too hard to look cool, a few impecably dressed women travelling alone, and us; two middle aged tired Americans sad to see our long weekend away ending.  All in all we were a plane filled with odd couples.  I can only imagine how comical we must have looked as we came pouring in through the door towards passport control.  But I would hazard a guess to say that this sight was not unique to our plane or even the Tirana airport.  Every day across the world with only a destination in common, thousands of mismatched strangers fill planes and jet off to foreign lands.  Regardless of the reason for the travel every time a plane takes off everyone on it ends up in the same destination.  And that is what we all have in common.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Hanging By A Thread

Hanging by a thread is an apt way to describe my life as of late.  As is the case on occasions that are becoming increasingly more frequent, my multiple roles-- that of mother, paid employee, wife, and unpaid volunteer seem to collide in a perfect storm of too many responsibilities and not enough time to accomplish them all satisfactorily.  And despite my best efforts, lost is all of this chaos is me. So yes, you could say that I am hanging on by a thread.

For us, daily life in Albania has a somewhat regular ebb and flow.  Over the course of a month we'll have a week of relative quiet, then ones that are busier, followed by a final week where we have too many commitments and invitations and not enough hours in the day.  Perhaps it is just the time of the year or the fact we've been here long enough to know more people and therefore garner more invitations.  And yet, with an end date in sight, we are running out of the time to actually do everything we hope to.  Regardless of the cause, as of late we have been particularly busy.  Between my paid work and my own responsibilities that accompany Glenn's job, I've been flowing from organizing one event to moving right into working on another. No sooner is one complete than I'm again talking to caterers all over again, paying bills, handling R.S.V.P.s (or the lack there of), and worrying about the most minute of details for the next date on the calendar.  I've always found satisfaction in volunteering for local organizations and in an effort to give back to Tirane, got involved with a local woman's organization.  Rather than finding enjoyment in this however, it has morphed into an onerous responsibility that is leaving me feeling both frustrated and frazzled.  Adding to the "fun" is our latest round of house woes.  (Whereas most people have monthly housing inspections, we seem to have regular monthly breakages and full on replacement needs that need continual monitoring). Then there was my most recent realization that May (gulp) is upon us meaning we also need to figure out what we are doing for our summer vacation this year.  I know many  people just go with the flow when it comes to vacations but unless we plan it out in advance and make the commitment of reservations in advance, the trips don't happen.  And of all summers, this is one where we definitely need a vacation.  However, all is not lost. Unlike a year ago who I told myself that time for myself could wait for another date, I am making more time for myself.  I am now at the point of considering invitations carefully and only saying yes those that are either absolutely necessary or ones I truly want to accept.  No more going to coffees and other assorted get- togethers where I will be miserable solely because it is the right thing to do.  Life is too short to surround myself with unpleasant people or unnecessarily burden myself with additional problems. I am also blocking out weekly me time. That comes in the form of regular French lessons, something I both enjoy in the present and will find practical in the future.  Sure I should be studying (more) but in the mean time my two hours of lesson time per week are all about me.  Throw in the time I spend walking to and from my tutor's apartment and I have a total of four hours a week all to myself.  A year ago just the thought of this time would have been unheard of.  Now it is a much needed reality.

Since I've already been feeling scattered and figuratively holding on for dear life recently I decided to take the plunge and go one step further.  Last Friday I found myself really hanging on by a thread, or in this case by my (weak) hands and arms.  For the first time, I went indoor rock climbing.  I know this probably isn't much of a feat for many people but for me it was a big deal. First, I don't like heights, preferring to remain safely on the ground whenever possible. Second, I lack any upper body strength so the prospect of being off the ground while supported by my own body strength was a bit unnerving.  So there I was, at the Rock Tirana Climbing Gym, participating in an attache social event that Glenn and I had organized.  In what was clearly a case of "it seemed like a good idea at the time", we had decided to take everyone rock climbing as a part of the monthly social gathering we had been tasked with hosting.  It was different from the usual dinner out and I thought it would be fun for kids and kids at heart.  And then I found myself in the gym staring at a tall wall filled with hand and foot holds.  The thoughts of "too old" and "too out of shape" immediately came to mind.  But since we were the hosts and I was determined to at least try climbing I gave it my best shot.  So this out of shape, short-limbed woman hoisted herself up the wall.  It wasn't easy; I struggled to find hand and toe holds that I could reach, and I most certainly didn't want to look down.  Just thinking about it paralyzed me.  By sheer determination, however, I managed to make it to the top not once, but twice.  I felt silly but proud of the fact that I did it (and did it again).  The owner of the gym told me that if I came back more often it would become easier over time.  I'm sure it would be; however I think I'll save that for someone else and spend my "me time" elsewhere.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Half In, Half Out

I feel like my life is in limbo with one half of me being here and the other half already gone.  We know where our next posting is going to be and we are very excited about the opportunity to experience living in a different part of Europe and all that will entail.  As a planner, I want to learn as much as I can about our new home and start making plans now.  However, we don't move for another eight months. That means that I while can look at houses that are available for rent now, I can't commit to anything. I can do the same for schools, volunteer opportunities and even potential jobs but we are just too far out to apply, sign up or make any concrete decisions now.  Plus, like I said, we still have another eight months to go in Albania.  This means we need to continue what we are doing here, remain engaged in our daily responsibilities and lives, and focus on the present while looking forward to the future. But it is proving to be hard. Really, really hard. 

Everything is getting harder.  Whether at home or at work, with each event I plan a little voice in the back of my head reminds me that this is the last year I will be doing the organizing for this specific activity.  Unlike last year, there won't be opportunities for me to improve on this year's event the next time around because for me, there won't be a next time.  Sure I will leave my copious notes and after action reports but someone else will be responsible for their implementation.  I know that a year from now none of these events will be my problem but given the amount of time and energy I've invested in what I do, a part of me feels responsible for their continued success.  It is also hard to see people who arrived after us preparing to depart post.  We were here first so shouldn't we be leaving first as well?  It is bittersweet to hear people talking about their countdown clocks in terms of days or perhaps a month or two knowing that once they have left, we will still be sitting right here in Tirana.  Departing families are being replaced with new ones who in turn bring with them new opportunities for friendships.  However, knowing we will be departing sooner (but not soon enough) rather than later makes me feel a bit less invested in engaging in new friendships that won't have time to really solidify before we move on.  I know these feelings will only intensify as we move into summer then fall. And then on a more frivolous front, there are all of the places here in Albania and the region that we want to visit before we leave.  When I plot out the weekends we have left and plug in our prior commitments, there just isn't enough time to do and see everything.  (Yes, I really have done this and am realizing that we are going to quickly run out of time)!  Perhaps we just need to stay longer????????? 

Transitions are natural but I'm still feeling unsettled and a bit out of sorts.  The next eight months are going to both drag and fly by so I need to enjoy it while still looking ahead to what happens next.  My Albanian lessons have been replaced with twice a week French ones.  Ironically, my Albanian has never been stronger.  We are figuring out where we really (and realistically) want to visit before we leave and have tentatively made plans for most of our remaining long weekends between now and the end of the year.  I am still cooking my heart out for our dinners and receptions but I'm also thinking about the smaller, more intimate affairs we will be able to host once we move.  The ability to cook with different ingredients that I don't have ready access to here is exciting but I'm also thinking about what local or plentiful foods I will miss.  (I am still determined to try my hand at cooking a whole octopus before we leave).  I'm researching potential neighborhoods in our new country to see where we might want to live while advocating that improvements be made to our current Albanian house so that the family replacing us does not have to endure the same problems we have had.  In researching the "next" I stumbled upon a blog that compares our new home with, you guessed it, Albania.  Apparently the writer finds a lot of similarities between the two countries.  I'm not sure whether this is a good thing or not.  Only time will tell but between now and then I have lots of cooking, traveling and work to do here before I step head-on into our next adventure.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Faces In The Crowd

I love people watching.  Where ever I go, observing others around me is my favorite way to pass the time. Whether on crowded public transportation, walking down the street, or shopping in the grocery store, observing the people around me always makes me wonder about them, their lives,and their stories.  Of all the places to observe people, however, my favorite by far is in airports.  Yes airports, those large (the bigger the better for people watching) impersonal places that bring people from all walks of life together by pure happenstance.  Customs agents manning passport control tend to have the same bored, and often suspicious, looks regardless of the airport or the country but it is the passengers that make each experience unique. The physical contrasts between individual travelers, couples, or families always amazes me and makes me even more curious about who they are and where they are going.

I recently experienced an extended layover in Rome and therefore spent several hours observing the people around me.  Because it was still early I saw the sleep deprived travellers arriving off of trans-Atlantic flights.  Some people hobbled off of planes sleepy and rumpled while other were impeccably dressed and looked as though they had received a solid night's sleep.  (Perhaps this can be attributed to the difference between flying economy and first class).  Freshly made up faces bounce by along side those with day old mascara running down cheeks.  Cranky babies and their equally harried  parents walk alongside slouchy teenagers with ear buds doing everything they can to distance themselves from their un-cool families. Americans are easy to identify. All too often we can be spotted wearing baseball caps, sweatpants, and sloganed tee-shirts while toting too many over-stuffed bags.  By contrast, Europeans, while still casual, look neater, more put together, and more comfortable in their surroundings. And they are never wearing athletic shoes.  Travelers without easy access to quality consumer goods lug overfilled plastic bags from the duty-free shop.  First time travelers toting too many bags carry looks of amazement and confusion on their faces as they take in their surroundings while business travelers pulling small wheeled carry-ons whisk through the airport with the efficiency that only comes with experience.  And to think we are all sharing the same space with the only similarities being the common goal of travel.

I used to have a fantasy --and maybe I still do--of going to an airport and buying a ticket for whatever flight had availability.  I never actually did this, but I always thought it would be spontaneous and fun to jet off to someplace new with no plans or agenda in mind.  This makes me wonder about the destinations of my fellow travelers.  People carrying laptops and wearing business suits on an early morning flight? They are most likely heading to a morning meeting.  Families loaded down with luggage, cameras, and travel books? Without a doubt, vacation.  Groups of fit young men dressed in matching jogging suits?  Here in Europe that usually signals a football (American soccer) team on their way to an out of town match.  Sometimes people are harder to place.  I've wondered about the lone woman sitting quietly in the corner sipping coffee and reading a book.  Is she traveling home to family or is she headed out on a much needed solo vacation? (Wait, that is another one of my fantasies).   Or what about the forlorn looking man playing with his I-Phone and the young teenager looking both scared and excited?  Perhaps their stories aren't exotic but my active mind has me wondering about the possibilities. 

Another favorite people watching game to play while in public is to try to decide which people actually belong together.  Often I can spot one half of a couple sitting and waiting and then pick out their partner as they make their way across the room to them.  Sometimes people just look like they belong together. It might be matching or coordinated outfits (gag), similar mannerisms, or just something about them that says they are together. Smartly coifed couples sitting beside those with bedhead make it easy to see who belongs together.  Parents trailed by their mini-mes are also too predictable as are the packs of the relatives traveling to their family reunions wearing matching tee shirts announcing their upcoming event.  On the other hand I've seen my share of mismatched couples that just surprise me.  Usually the mismatch involves impeccably groomed women who obviously care about their appearances paired with slovenly men who can only be described as walking disasters.  I found myself sitting next to one such couple in Rome last week and just wondered what the attraction was.  He was big, untucked, and had a stain on his shirt. She was tiny, dressed in black and animal print and had an identically outfitted pocketbook sized dog on her lap.  As he shoveled a whole pastry into his mouth and she fed bits of hers to the dog, I just couldn't figure them out.  My imagination worked in overtime on this one.

The possibilities for people watching are endless.  Just when I think I've seen it all I notice something new and unprecedented.  As much as I love traveling to new destinations half of the fun is who I see along the way.  Kindle and laptop batteries may die but a long layover can be very bearable if you take the time to look at the people around you. You never know what you are going to see next.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Top To Bottom Notre Dame

Noon mass
For us, any trip to a European city wouldn't be complete unless we visited a local cathedral or two.  In Paris, that meant a trip to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  The Gothic cathedral's cornerstone was laid in 1163 and it was the largest religious building in western Europe until the mid-13th century.  It was the setting for Victor Hugo's 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which in addition to bringing public attention to the cathedral's need to be preserved, created a greater awareness of France's national heritage.  The cathedral was restored after it suffered damage during the French Revolution and since 1991 has been on the UNESCO list of important historic sites. 

Like so many of the other churches we have visited, Notre Dame didn't disappoint.  Iconic stained glass windows that soared for stories, a grand pipe organ, and numerous apses were all a part of Notre Dame.  We visited on a Saturday around noon and were surprised to see a mass underway.  I'm not Catholic, or for that matter, religious, but somehow it felt wrong to be traipsing through a cathedral while a sacred rite was taking place.  I would have assumed that the church would have been closed to all but the worshipers during services.  In fact, that is why we opted to visit on Saturday rather than on Sunday since we had encountered more than one iconic church who closed their doors to tourists during religious services.  Numerous signs, written in multiple languages, cautioned visitors to silence their cell phones, remain silent and refrain from using the flashes on their cameras but human nature being what it is, people continued to speak at volumes that echoed throughout the church as flashes popped and a few cell phones rang.  We tip-toed along the perimeter of the cathedral taking in the grand spectacle of this famous church.  With my layman's perspective,  I vacillated between being in awe of the gold gilded accouterments and wondering about the monetary worth of the treasures the church contained.  It is easy to see the wealth and influence the Catholic Church held, and perhaps still holds, over the faithful.  During especially dark times I can understand why people would turn to such an impressive institution for both comfort and direction.  At the same time I take pause when thinking about the abject poverty that thousands of common people endured while the Church prospered.  Despite, or perhaps because of these dueling feelings, I left the inside of the Cathedral slightly disturbed but in awe just the same.

Just one of  many amazing stained glass windows

Despite all of the cathedrals we have visited--ones in Rome, Budapest, Prague, and Vienna to name just a few-- our visit to Notre Dame marked a first for us.  For the first time, we went to the top of the church and viewed the city from the 69 meter high towers.  Since I have an insurmountable fear of heights, this excursion was not planned.  When we first approached the exterior of the cathedral we noticed an ever growing number of people lining up along the perimeter of the building.  Upon closer inspection we saw the usual stanchions indicating where people should stand and a sign informing us that the tour started at this point.  We assumed our place in line and huddled in the blustery wind as the queue of people snaked forward ever so slowly.  Finally after what seemed like hours but was actually closer to just one, we earned our opportunity to enter the cathedral. I thought we were going to enter the chapel; instead we found ourselves climbing a steep and narrow staircase that wound upwards in an endless spiral.

A bird's eye perspective of Paris
As it dawned on me what was happening, I had a moment of panic. After all, I am the one who makes it a rule to never go above the ground level if I can help it.  After a fearful climb up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Glenn has accepted the fact that he will be touring towers by himself while I remain safely on the ground below.  However, on Saturday, chilled from standing in line, I decided to give a trip to the top a go.  Slowly I followed Glenn up, up, up to the top of the towers.  Just when I began to wonder how much higher we could climb, we emerged on the terrace of the Chimera Gallery complete with gargoyles and the sound of peeling bells. Much to my relief the entire area was protected by a security netting that would prevent all but the smallest of objects from plummeting to the ground below.  I stayed close to the back wall but bravely opened my eyes and looked out at the vista before me. I was rewarded with a spectacular view of Paris. Below me the Seine flowed, green open spaces abounded, and not so ordinary, ordinary buildings lined the streets.  The Eiffel Tower soared in the background creating an iconic Parisian scene.  I was shaky but I had done it and it was truly beautiful.

And the view in the other direction
From here we had the option of continuing even higher to the top of the south tower.  Not wanting to press my luck since this was higher that I had been in a very long time, I decided to descend to the stable ground below while Glenn continued upwards.  Back on the ground I reflected on the views from above that provided a very different perspective than is possible from ground level.  The views were amazing and I admit, worth the climb.  And I just might make that climb, or a similar one, again.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Day With A Grand Lady & Some Of Her Friends

The grand lady of the museum
Since no trip to Paris would be complete without a visit to the Louvre, we spent this past Sunday exploring this magnificent museum that houses some of the world's great masterpieces.  Our plan had been to go early and try to beat the crowds but this being the Louvre, and a weekend at that, there are always crowds so we decided to just make the best of it.  (Besides, we'd been out later than usual the night before so an early start just didn't happen!).  And much to our surprise, with the exception of a few notable exhibits, the crowds really weren't that bad. Perhaps it was because Sunday was the first beautiful sunny day in a while and most people didn't want to spend it inside.  Or maybe it is because the museum is just so large.  In either case, it all worked just fine for us as we had many exhibits to ourselves and were able to really take in and absorb as much art as we could out of all that this museum has to offer.

Intricate details all done by hand
Because the Louvre is home to Leonardo da Vinci's world famous Mona Lisa, we made visiting this painting a top priority.  Apparently so did all of the other visitors as this is where we found the crowds.  The exhibit room housing this painting was packed with camera snapping tourists flocking to see this famous painting.  (I guess you can count us among the group).  Even if the hoards of people weren't there, the painting was cordoned off in a way that prohibited a close up examination of her so we took a picture of two then moved on.  Because the museum is so large we decided that rather than try to take it all in, we would select a few exhibits to view in depth and save the others for a return visit.  (And there will be a return visit). Egyptian art is always interesting but having spent a considerable amount of time viewing it at the Kunsthistorisches during our January trip to Vienna, we decided to focus on sculptures. From Jupiter and Minerva to Venus de Milo and Aphrodite, the Louvre has them all.  Repeatedly I was amazed at the level of detail found on these sculptures.  When I remembered the times during which these pieces of work were created, I was even more impressed.  Each minute detail was chiseled by hand.  (Or as Glenn said, there was no Dremel used here).  More than once I found myself peering closely to see if the detail was really made of stone.  And it was.

As we wandered from one salon to another we noticed something beyond the grand masterpieces.  As is often the case, the museum buildings themselves are pieces of art.  The Louve's history as a palace was evident at every turn.  From sweeping stairways to grand foyers I almost found myself missing the artwork because I was absorbing the details of each room.  High, intricately painted ceilings dominated many rooms, soaring windows offered views of the manicured grounds, and arched doorways welcomed you into the next room.  And this was just on the inside of the museum.  The exterior details of the museum were just as grand as the inside.  We wandered through the former apartments of Napoleon III, just one of many royals who have called this palace home.  I couldn't decide whether or not his quarters are ostentatious, epically grand, or a bit of both.  From the forty-six person dining room table (yes, we counted) to one parlor after another, everything was draped in velvet and gilded in gold.  Impressive? Yes.  Over the top?  Even more so.  Pictures just can't do the experience justice.

I am a bit ashamed to admit that prior to my visit, I never understood what all the fuss over the Louvre was about. After all, all of the great world capitols have famous museums that house impressive masterpieces.  And many of these museums are located in impressive buildings.  But having been there, I now understand.  It is the combination of all of these factors that makes the Louvre so impressive and grand.   I now understand why this museum is on every Parisian travel itinerary and listed as a must see on travel sites.  It really is a must see.  I know I only saw a small dose of what the museum has to offer but I also know that I will be back.  Having received a small taste of what it offers how can I not return?

One of Napoleon's parlors

A glimpse out a window

Looking up a sweeping stairway

Monday, April 22, 2013

April In Paris

Paris in bloom
To celebrate our wedding anniversary, we spent this past weekend in Paris.  After spending last year's anniversary in Istanbul and realizing that we could get away for quick long weekends without Sidney, we decided that this year would be the year we went to Paris.  Neither of us had ever been and a visit to all of the grand sites of Paris was on our "before we leave Europe" bucket list.  (Little did we know that one week after we booked our tickets we would get follow on orders that would not only keep us in Europe for another three years but we'd be within a couple of hours driving time from this magnificent city.......).  Because we knew we would be able to easily go back, we decided from the onset that this trip would give us an overview of all that the city has to offer and give us an idea of what we want to return to again.  We had no set in stone agenda in mind other than to relax and enjoy ourselves.  So bags packed, off we went to Paris in April.

The first thing we discovered is that Paris in April is cold.  It is so much farther north than Albania that the warm spring weather we had been experiencing at home had yet to settle into France.  Despite the cooler than expected temperatures and rain showers our first day, the sun came out and we had a fabulous weekend exploring the city.  As an added benefit of being that much farther north, the days were long. Very long in fact.  Our first night there we were surprised to have sunlight at nine at night; in Tirana this is what we experience for a few brief weeks at the end of June.  The second thing we discovered about Paris is that it is expensive.  Perhaps the prices seemed even more inflated since we were coming from a country where an entire pizza costs you four dollars.  A single Paris meal cost us more than what we spend on groceries for an entire week in Tirana.  But it was so good, and we were on vacation after all, so we stopped looking at the prices and just enjoyed ourselves.  

So what did we do all weekend?  We played tourist of course.  We put many miles on our feet as we walked from one end of the city to the other.  And when we got tired we hopped on the Metro (I was once again reminded of how much I miss living in a place with safe and convenient public transportation).  We explored the Louvre, climbed to the top of Notre Dame Cathedral, and strolled along the Seine.  We sipped wine in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, but due to striking workers were unable to take the elevator up to the top.

Atop Notre Dame Cathedral

And this being Paris, we ate then we ate some more.  Paris is a food lovers paradise and I was not disappointed.  From buttery pastries washed down with rich cappuccinos to basic meals of bread and cheese the food did not disappoint.  We ate classic French food and I discovered what all the fuss is about rose wine.  It was a good thing that we walked as much as we did since we did a lot of eating.  Craving ethnic food that just isn't available in Albania, we ate at a Lebanese restaurant one night.  Oh my was it ever good.  And I quickly realized that despite my concerns while I still have a hard time understanding the spoken language and an even more difficult time speaking it, my ability to read French menus is pretty darn good.  There were no surprises when any of our meals arrived at the table. The most difficult part was choosing which items we wanted to eat.

Dodging traffic in front of the Arc de Triomphe

But my absolute favorite thing about Paris was the city herself.  Sure her landmarks are impressive and the food was amazing but I loved the broad boulevards, narrow cobblestone streets, and expansive parks and green space.  Not the world famous ones, but the ordinary ones.  The city greened before our eyes as we noticed the leaves popping out over the course of the weekend filling once bare branches with green.  Garden after garden of brightly colored daffodils, tulips, and other spring flowers lined the streets.  For being such a large city everything was orderly, people were well mannered and it was easy to maneuver as both a pedestrian and a motorist.  Broad sidewalks allowed for easy passage on even the busiest of streets.  We walked for miles stopping at sidewalk cafes when our feet needed a rest. We watched street performers--some good and some not so much---, sat on park benches observing the people around us, and joined other tourists in watching the light show on the Eiffel Tower.  Mostly we just absorbed everything that is Paris in the spring.  To me, that is the ultimate Parisian experience.   I can't wait to go back.

The Eiffel Tower at night

Friday, April 19, 2013

Dois-je Parler Francais?

Non.  Yo. No.  Twenty plus years ago under the tutelage of a teacher with a heavy Maine accent, I studied French in high school. Despite my attempts at the time, I never really became fluent. In fact, after three years of muddling through, I was barely proficient.  I could always read the language better than I could hear it and my speaking the language was always a disaster.  All of this seems to be the exact opposite of what I really need in order to be able to communicate effectively.  If I could just write messages to people I would be golden.  After years not using the language for anything other than reading an occasional sign or grocery store label, I remember virtually none of it. That became horribly apparent this week as I began what is supposed to be "refresher" lessons with a tutor.

With our next assignment being in a French speaking region, I've decided that, at a minimum, I need to be able to verbally comprehend the basics of the language.  This is especially true since Sidney will be attending a French language immersion school where I will need to be able to communicate with his teachers (and him).  I will also need to speak with our neighbors, shop in the markets, and conduct all of the other daily activities where understanding the local language is necessary.  After throwing out queries to a group of local internationals I was quickly connected with a French tutor here in Tirana.  Not only is she French speaking but she is actually from France.  As I demonstrated yesterday, she certainly has her work cut out for her.  My telling her that I had studied French years ago resulted in her speaking French to me during our very first lesson.  Any French I might have known flew out the window but my Albanian suddenly became remarkably strong.  She would slowly speak to me in French, I would comprehend about half of it, then unwittingly formulate a response in Albanian.  It wasn't what she wanted to hear but my Albanian teacher would have been so proud of my correct use of both vocabulary and grammar.  When we moved onto writing simple sentences I was much better.  I could read and understand what she had written but my attempt at reciting the words to her in French sounded more like a pre-schooler learning to talk.

Sitting in my tutor's apartment I was reminded of how difficult it is for me to learn a language.  My head hurt from concentrating and much to my frustration, no matter how hard I tried, the language just wasn't coming back to me.  I know, or hope, it eventually will but in the mean time it is going to be a long eight months of lessons.  Hopefully it will pay off in the end though and I won't be quite as much a fish out of water when we land at our next assignment.  And, since everyone say immersion is the way to go, today we're headed off for a long weekend in Paris.  I'm not even going to pretend that I will be able to understand what is said to me or ask the most basic question. I will be able to read most menus though and with a few gestures, a lot of smiling and some apologizing, I'll eat well and do just fine.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Post Blloku: A Communist Era Memorial in Tirana

A historical recap
History is often ugly, uncomfortable, and easier to forget than remember but not remembering is detrimental to both the people who have lived through the past and future generations who are in turn robbed of an opportunity to understand their own history.  Without an understanding of history, history is doomed to repeat itself.  While the more heroic moments are well documented--hence the country's obsession with its 15th Century national hero Skenderbeg, Albania's often proud history includes "forgetting" or erasing the uglier portions of her past.  The Communist Era is one such period that is often forgotten or at least not talked about.  Ever so slowly, however, Albanians are becoming more willing to talk about and document this past.  In recent years an exhibit dedicated to the Communist Era in Albania opened at the National Museum of History here in Tirana.  And recently, another new outdoor exhibit memorializing this time period opened as well. Located adjacent to both the Parliament Building and the home of former dictator Enver Hoxha, Post Blloku recognizes Albania's dark and horrifying isolationist.  The location is ironic since it is adjacent to the Bllok area where senior members of the Hoxha regime once lived and non-party members were forbidden to enter.

This memorial honors former political prisoners who suffered under Hoxha's  regime and was designed by former prisoner of war, Fatos Lubonja and internationally recognized artist, Ardian Isufi.   The exhibit consists of three pieces; a bunker that once guarded the site, mine shaft columns from Spac Prison, and a 2.6-ton piece of the Berlin Wall.  I remember driving by the bunker on our first day in Tirana.  Sitting in the shadow of a tree behind a magazine stand, it was half buried in dirt and debris and if I didn't already know the history behind bunkers and what they looked like, I wouldn't have known what I was seeing.  Now part of the memorial is has been cleaned out with the original fixtures remaining intact. It is possible to go down a set of steps into the bunker so you can have the same view that soldiers standing guard once had.  Spac Prison was a Communist Era political prison and labor camp located 60 miles north of Tirana. A former copper mine, the conditions were deplorable and the concrete mine shaft columns that are now in Tirana serve as a poignant reminder of what the prison once was.  The final piece of the memorial is a section of the Berlin Wall, perhaps the most widely known symbol of Communism, that was donated to the Municipality of Tirana from the City of Berlin, Germany.  Never having seen the Wall when it was fully intact, I was surprised by the contrast between the two sides of this concrete slab.  While the side facing the west--and the street side of the monument---is filled with colorful graffiti, the eastern facing side is stark and gray.  Like the location of the memorial itself, the irony of which side of the wall is facing the street and which side is facing the Bllok is not lost on me.

meets west

A soldier's view of the world
Although small in size, the message behind this monument is powerful.  I was fortunate to be a part of a small group of people who met Mr. Lubonja at the monument this morning.  As he guided us through the area he explained the history and meaning behind each piece.  Standing on the green manicured grass in the perfectly clear and sunny spring weather made it hard to imagine what conditions had been like during Communist times.  As we stood there a police officer loitered nearby and eyed us suspiciously, a few youth casually stuck their heads into the bunker as they passed through and an elderly man used the base of the mine shaft columns as a seat.  Other than this the hustle and bustle on the street ignored our presence and that of the memorial.  It was almost as if by not looking at it people were hoping it would disappear.  To me, this is sad.  As Mr. Lubonja has been quoted, "This (monument) is dedicated to those who did not manage to live through the dictatorship.  Our duty is to remember because we have to know where we are coming from in order to know where we are heading to.”

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dental Tourism; Albanian Style

Dental tourism.  I was first introduced to this phrase shortly after arriving in Albania.  We were staying in Embassy provided temporary housing and one of the tourist magazines left in our apartment had an article on the dental tourism industry in Albania. I laughed at the time and am still chuckling now, but this is for real.  Albania-hotels.com has a whole page dedicated to this travel niche and there is even an Albanian dental tourism Facebook page.  The concept behind medical tourism isn't new; people will willingly travel thousands of miles to undergo medical treatments that are either unavailable or cost prohibitive in their native countries.  Of course, most medical tourism involves people travelling from less developed countries to more developed ones in order to receive their treatments.  Countries in the Middle East, Central Europe, and South and Central America as well a handful in Asia rank high as medical treatment destinations.  The Balkans, not so much.  And for me, there lies the irony.  Albania is what I would consider a still developing country, yet their dental industry appears to be far more developed than just about everything else here.

Early on I noticed that there is an abundance of dental clinics in Albania.  In some areas of the city they are as numerous as car washes and cafes.  Even in the most remote village, if there are more than a handful of buildings in one area, you are apt to find a dental clinic. And because of the plethora of dentists, getting work done here is very inexpensive when compared to many parts of the world.  Given the number of dental clinics in the country you might expect all Albanians to be walking around with perfect teeth.  Many are. From young to old many Albanians have teeth any model would envy.  Even our own nanny has a newly acquired set of perfect full implants.  For those not opting to go that route, veneers are the other popular option.  But, at the opposite end of the spectrum you see people with poorly cared for teeth, or even no teeth at all.  This seems to be more frequently observed in older generations who came of age when dental care was virtually non-existent.  If you look carefully at the groups of men gathered in cafes, if they are of an older generation they are likely to have only a few, yellowed teeth in their mouths.  No implants or veneers here!

I've long suspected that not all dental clinics are the same and yesterday, during my own visit to an Albanian dentist, I discovered that this theory was true.  I am fortunate to have healthy teeth so my visits to dentists have generally been limited to annual cleanings.  For this I am grateful since I absolutely hate going.  I will always put it off as long as I can since just thinking about it is enough to keep me up at night.  Silly? Perhaps.  But it is what it is.  Shortly before we moved overseas, under duress I went to the dentist to have a chipped front tooth repaired.  Anticipating the visit was worse than the actual procedure and the results made it all worth it.  I thought that episode was behind me.  Until I re-chipped that same tooth this past weekend.  Monday morning I dutifully visited the Embassy's health unit where they wasted no time in scheduling an appointment with a "really clean and western dentist".  I was hesitant, but what were my other options?

Yesterday afternoon I set off with an Embassy driver to the said dentist.  I was told I didn't want to drive myself since the clinic was extremely difficult to find and even if I could find it, I would never find a (legal) parking space.  The drivers at the Embassy know the city well so I have never questioned their ability to find a destination.  Midway to our destination, however, the driver told me that he wasn't really sure where we were going.  When I questioned him he corrected himself by telling me he knew the general location but assured me that we would be able to find it.  I thought luck was on our side when we found a real parking spot across from a bakery which "was near the dental clinic".  (Yes, these were our directions).  I didn't see anything resembling a dentist office but an inquiry to a group of young men lounging at a sidewalk cafe lead us around the corner into an alley. Sure enough, we saw a sign indicating a dentist office on the second floor of a store front building.  The condition of the building caused me to enter with trepidation; the stairwell was unlit and littered with discarded papers and food wrappers.  On the second floor I encountered three doors, two of which were unmarked and a third that had a giant picture of teeth on it. I hesitantly rang the door bell and exhaled a sigh of relief when no one answered.  Back outside I went, calling the health unit for clarification as to where I was supposed to go.  Another inquiry to a passerby revealed that there were in fact two dental clinics side by side on this narrow street.  The second, and correct one was on the second floor of the abutting building but this being Albania, was completely unmarked from the outside.  Climbing the stairs in the well lit and impeccably clean stairwell I felt better. Or as better as I could considering the fact I was going to the dentist.

Twenty minutes and thirty dollars later I was back on the street with a now perfect tooth.  The clinic was immaculate, the dentist and her assistant spoke English, and I had survived my first (and hopefully only) Albanian dental experience.  Other than an odd offer for anesthesia ---which was totally unnecessary and which I declined-- and being ushered directly into the exam chair rather than sitting in the waiting room forever, the experience was very much like that of visiting an American dentist.  If I didn't know where the chip had been I wouldn't even be able to see the repair.  The thirty dollar price was less than my co-pay with dental insurance in the United States.  With these prices and quality, I can see why Albania is building their dental tourism industry.  However, I don't know if I would travel here from somewhere else for the sake of having any dental work done. Then again, I would be hard pressed to drive across town in the United States to visit a dentist. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Not Again

Not again.  That was my initial thought last night when I heard the breaking news about the bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Although thousands of miles away from Boston, the city had been on my mind all day.  As a New Englander through and through, Boston is my all time favorite city and is never been far from thoughts.  During my twenties I spent a lot of time in this historic city both professionally and personally and have viewed my share of Boston Marathons and Red Sox games.  Early in our relationship I made a point of introducing Glenn to this city I love so much.  Once I moved away from New England, Boston became a vacation destination or at least brief stopping point when passing through.  As a child, the third Monday in April always marked the beginning of spring vacation week and Patriot's Day, that uniquely Massachusetts (and Maine) holiday marking the Revolutionary War Battles of Lexington and Concord.  Although not a runner, I have many friends who are and who regularly take part in that 26.2 mile trek.  Yesterday I had been reading Facebook updates throughout the morning from friends who were lining the route and cheering on runners simply because that is what you do in Boston on marathon day.  Many joke that it is really the marathon that makes the day a state holiday since like a religion, New Englanders take all of their sporting traditions very seriously.  So yes, Boston was already on my mind before the heart breaking news was announced. 

Emerging news reports are continuing to provide conflicting information but the general consensus is that three people were killed and one hundred and forty-four others received permanent, and in some cases, life threatening injuries in yesterday's blasts.  Once again I find myself wondering what would drive an individual (or a group) to such lengths that inflicting mass harm on innocent people is their only answer.  Why people, why? What did anyone ever do to you to cause such pain?  While the physical injuries are limited to innocent bystanders, the emotional ones run much deeper and literally span the globe.  Like so many other Americans I am left feeling fragile and uncomfortably vulnerable as I wonder when the next tragedy will strike. And yes, I say when, not if, since our tragic history has a way of repeating itself all too often.  As I have seen, and felt, all too often in recent years, when something incomprehensibly tragic befalls us we step back, seek comfort and solace then reassess our circumstances.  Security measures may be increased, as a society we walk around on eggshells for awhile while we remain extra vigilant, and we may temporarily change our ways.  But soon, as the horror fades to a distant memory, we resume our daily lives a little less innocently until a new horror reemerges in a slightly different, but none the less traumatizing form.  This is no way to live.

But, out of every tragedy emerges an unimaginable showing of human kindness.  This was immediately evident yesterday as the media showed pictures of complete strangers assisting, tending to, and comforting each other.  Without giving it a second thought strangers rushed to help other strangers as clothing was stripped off of bodies in order to create makeshift bandages, physical wounds were tended to, and emotional ones triaged.  Perhaps it is a spontaneous unification against an unknown force of terror but for a brief time amidst all of the horror, politics, race, and religion are forgotten and being kind and good to each other is all that really matters.  It doesn't matter what the stranger next to you looks like; if they need help, someone is there to help them.  I remember sensing this compassion after September 11th and again in the years since after disasters, either natural or man made, have struck communities.  This provides me with a small sense of comfort that there really is good in our world. 

As a New Englander, Patriot's Day is the ultimate patriotic holiday and it crushes me that this day is now tainted with such horrific violence.  I am sending my thoughts and love to all Bostonians, New Englanders, and Americans out there.  I strongly believe that out of adversity comes strength and as history continues to prove, we are one tough lot.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Night Noises

Here in Tirana we are in the midst of those few elusive weeks that appear each spring and fall.  The temperatures are hovering at that comfortable range where we can open the house windows with it being neither too hot nor too cold.  After spending months with everything sealed up tight (or at least as tight as the house can be since I feel drafts floating in through the windows all year long) it feels wonderful to feel fresh air inside of the house again.  We've opened the shutters as well so the bright sunlight that we have been waiting months for can stream in.  It is apparently still such a novelty to Sidney that he keeps exclaiming "The sun is out; it is bright."  I love to sleep with the windows open at night and feeling the breeze blow across the room makes sleeping that much more pleasant. Of course the breeze isn't the only thing that drifts into our windows.  The local noises of the night accompany the cool breezes and remind me once again that, despite what the locals tell me, we live in a very loud neighborhood that never truly sleeps.

The loudest, and perhaps most continuous noise, is the traffic on the street above our house.  Because of the way our house is situated at the bottom of a hill, our third floor is exactly parallel to the main street.  You can hear the usual traffic--speeding cars, the high pitched whine of motorcycles, and the occasional wail of a siren, but with all of the road construction that is going on, you can also hear the rumble of heavy trucks and road machinery.  This noise seems to continue all night long.  As do the random roosters and peacocks in the neighborhood. Yes, peacocks. I had gotten used to the dogs and almost don't notice their continuous barking and howling, but the peacocks are new. Or at least they are to me.  At first I attributed them to a local restaurant that plays host to a menagerie of animals--including a big brown bear in a cage-- since I have seen them strutting through their grounds.  Now I suspect there is another flock near by as well, either that or the sound is really carrying and echoing from all directions.  I wonder when peacocks became the must have animal in Albania.

The other new to me sound is the morning call to prayer being emitted from a local mosque.  Since Albania is a predominantly Muslim country, the sight of mosques is as commonplace as cafes, stores, and car washes.  In fact, you will see more mosques than any other type of religious institution and you will see them in the least expected locations.  What puzzles me is the fact that I'm not sure where the closest mosque is to our house and why after two years, I am suddenly hearing their pre-dawn chants.  For anyone who has never heard a call to prayer the sounds are both beautiful and mystifying as well as unnerving if you aren't expecting it.  This is especially true during the dark, pre-dawn hours. The first time I heard a call to prayer was in Dubai, UAE. I was visiting Glenn during a port call and had spent a fitful, jet lagged night trying to get some sleep. No sooner had I fallen asleep than I was awoken by the haunting chants.  Taken by surprise I wasn't sure what I was hearing and being alone, in the dark and in a foreign city and country, I was a bit freaked out. I quickly realized what I was listening to and grew accustomed to hearing this wake-up call during the remainder of my stay. I've heard the call to prayer while here in Albania but never from our house at the crack of dawn.  Have I been missing it all along or is it like the peacocks, a totally new noise?

I suppose I could close the windows at night in order to create a barrier between myself and the outside world.  However, I'm going to enjoy the cool breezes while they last.  All too soon the temperatures will soar and the windows will once again be shuttered tight. And with them the wild and varied noises of the Albanian night.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Caution: Road Construction Ahead

The warning-- a few mere meters before
the end of the road
Although severely lagging behind the rest of Europe, Albania's roadway system is exploding and expanding by leaps and bounds.  Roads are appearing where none had been before while once dirt tracks are being widened, groomed, and then paved.  We've noticed the expansion and improvements in the two years we've been here; travel times between cities have been reduced and while it still happens too often, encountering "sudden loss of asphalt" syndrome is less frequent than it used to be.  However, road construction in Albania is unlike anything else I've ever seen before.  Perhaps there is a system that notifies people that we are just unaware of but more likely you are just supposed to be careful and be prepared for the unexpected.  After all, that seems to be the motto when traveling any Albanian road. Rarely is impending work marked with signs warnings of construction zones ahead.  And even the largest of projects are conducted in small bits and pieces.  A section of road might be widened and paved with the next kilometer or so being skipped over before improvements continuing a short distance later (hence the "sudden loss of pavement" syndrome).  Work around bridges tends to be particularly bad.  I've seen entire stretches of road repaved only to have the bridges left untouched meaning traffic must detour down and around the span the bridge is supposed to go over.  Construction also seems to happen seven days a week with the majority of the work actually being conducted on weekends.  In an only in Albanian way, this makes sense since there is less traffic on weekends.  This is especially important since roads and construction zones are not closed to traffic while work is taking place.  I regularly see cars and furgons whizzing around backhoes and bulldozers, around men working with pick axes, and yes, speeding over and around freshly laid asphalt.  (This is likely one of the causes for "new" roads falling apart and becoming riddled with pot holes shortly after work is completed).  In the United States it would be unheard of to allow vehicles, people, animals, or any unauthorized entity to enter into a work zone.  Just think of the lawsuits that would ensue if something went wrong.  No such worries in Albania, a country where you are ultimately responsible for your own destiny.  Fixing the smallest pot hole in America requires miles of road in either direction to be blocked off and guarded by police.   In Albania, this is unheard of.  Hence, the scene we drove into yesterday.
Road block

We were out doing some out of the city exploring on a section of unpaved road, part of which we had driven on a few weeks ago.  This road, while narrow and rutted with pot holes and boulders is considered to be an important main through fare here.  Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until we rounded a curve and noticed a man working sign sitting next to a traffic cone. Both are rare enough occurrences that should have given us pause but we merely commented on it and continued up the hill.  Until we couldn't any go any further.  At the crest of the hill sat a backhoe, a dump truck loaded with gravel, a handful of construction workers, a couple of old men and young boys observing and a huge hole in the road.   Apparently we had entered into a work zone with a dug up road that wouldn't allow us to continue.  One of the workers waved his arms and made some hand gestures but we couldn't figure out what was happening. Then a large work truck appeared in our rear view mirror and because we were in his way, came to a stop and began honking their horn.  Soon a man got out of the truck approached us and entered into a stilted conversation with Glenn in Albanian.  He spoke with the construction workers before returning to our vehicle and informing us that they were working on the road and it would be closed for one hour.

As Glenn and I pondered what was really going on and wondered whether we should turn around and backtrack for three hours, we watched in horror as the truck behind us backed up, drove off the side of the road and attempted to maneuver around the construction site.  As the driver attempted to move up a steep and rocky, yet muddy hill we watched the truck lurch and spin its wheels before sliding back down the hill. He tried again and again with each attempt looking more precarious. At one point the truck lurched to the right and appeared to be on the verge of tipping over.  I had seen a small child sitting unprotected in the passenger seat of the truck and my heart was in my throat as I feared what would happen next.  Perhaps it was that Mediterranean machismo that caused the driver to continue his quest but finally he came to his senses, slid back down the hill and returned to his position behind us.

By this point Glenn had also gotten out of the vehicle and gone up to investigate the construction site.  Apparently a new concrete culvert was being laid in seven separate sections in preparation for the entire road being paved within the next two years. The foreman of the group assured Glenn that it would be complete in five minutes and we would then be able to continue on our way.  I was skeptical when I heard this but then again what do I know about Albanian construction.  The occupants of the truck were now standing beside our vehicle engaging Glenn in a halted conversation. I listened but due to the fact I was a female was of little consequence to the men.  They asked Glenn a series of questions starting with whether or not we were Albanian (do we look Albanian?), where we lived, and once they found out we were associated with the U.S. Embassy, they inquired as to how much money Glenn makes a year.  You have got to love the Albanian lack of boundaries that would have them thinking this was an appropriate question to ask. Things got even stranger as they started oohing and aahing about our old Nissan asking where we bought it, where it was made, and yes, how much we paid for it.  They stared at amazement at our camera as Glenn took pictures of the scenery around us. (He was also documenting this scene since it is one of those things that without pictures, no one would believe). Then much to my surprise, and Sidney's too, one of the men opened the rear door so his son (the poor a fore mentioned boy) could see Sidney.  No asking permission, just doing it. That seemed a bit ballsy even by Albanian standards.  Sidney, who had just woken up from a nap stared at him stonily and silently until he closed the door.

How many men does it take to watch a hole being filled?

The promised five minutes crept closer to the one hour that the truck driver had predicted.  By now we were joined by a third vehicle whose driver also honked his horn for us to get out of his way.  Like we were all hanging out in the middle of the road for the fun of it.  Finally the last piece of concrete culvert was laid, two men popped out of the ditch and the filling in of the road began.  Sidney counted ten hods full of earth being dumped on top of the culvert.  Then the waiting dump truck emptied his load before speeding away and the backhoe went to work with tamping the earth into place.  Finally we were beckoned to be the first ones to drive on through. I was apprehensive as to whether the road would hold but it did and we were once again on our merry way.

As we continued down the mountain and through the valley we saw evidence of other culverts having been laid.  None of this work had even been started two weeks earlier but now it seemed as though construction was moving ahead at full steam.  Around each and every corner we encountered small groups of men working.  Some were pouring concrete while others were digging ditches or filling holes.  We saw a retaining wall made of intricately placed stones being built by hand.  There was always at least one elderly man wearing a sports coat observing.  Sometime there was also a child or two as well as the predictable donkey and dog.  The Albanian roadway system is definitely expanding.  We witnessed this first hand. In fact, we were almost a part of this new road.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Confessions Of A Recovering Shoe-A-holic

I am a recovering shoe addict.  There I said it.  I say recovering since, while I still absolutely adore shoes, they don't excite me the way they used to. Perhaps my love of shoes is a direct rebellion against my anti-fashion mother because the minute I had any disposable income I started buying shoes.  Sky-high heels or ballet flats, it didn't matter.  As long as they were cute they were the shoe for me.  From an early age I've always noticed what other people are wearing on their feet and right or wrong, quickly pass judgement on what I see.  As someone who firmly believes that athletic shoes should only be worn when actually performing an athletic activity, I am quick to notice whether or not the shoes match the occasion.  A cocktail dress is ruined if it isn't paired with an appropriately dressy pair of shoes.  Scuffed shoes closed with Velcro strips do nothing for a man wearing a suit.  I often feel as though people forget to look down once they are dressed and throw on whatever pair of shoes they have available.  Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

In my single days I thought nothing of dropping a large chunk of change for the perfect shoes.  After all, what else did I have to spend my money on?  The higher the heels, the more unusual in design, generally the more impractical the better was my motto.  While I loved a good sale if I saw the perfect pair I would buy them immediately.  As so many young adults do, I moved often in my twenties and my number one priority in selecting a new home was the availability of space to store my shoes.  I needed shelves.  Because I always kept the shoes stacked in their original boxes--label side out of course-- I found myself continually on a quest to find the perfect storage space to accommodate my ever expanding collection.  Yes, I turned down more than one otherwise perfectly acceptable apartment because the storage space was utterly inadequate.

When I met Glenn I was simultaneously horrified yet pleased with what I saw.  The man only owned a couple of pairs of shoes and bragged that he hadn't bought any in several years.  (In fact, with the exception of a pair of running shoes I bought and shipped to him while he was deployed, we had been married for five years before he even bought himself a new pair of shoes).  However, he never wore sneakers unless exercising and in true military fashion, his shoes were always shined to perfect precision.  That my friends, is a good thing.  And when we agreed to move in together he ceded three quarters of his closet space for my shoes.  I was in love. Of course as I got organized in anticipation of the big move, I realized that I owned over two hundred pairs of shoes.  Gulp.  That was bad. It was one thing to look at my extravagant collection and receive occasional complements on my footwear but it was another thing to have someone else looking at the wall of boxes every day.  As hard as it was I did what I had to and did my first major purge of my shoe collection. Out went 120 pairs--many in pristine condition---donated to charity and I moved with a respectable (???) 80 pairs.  My mother knew it was serious since I had never met anyone before who inspired me to get rid of my precious shoes.

Fast forward a few years.  Still in the workforce, undergoing a very long deployment all alone, and working within proximity of the largest mall with the best selection of shoe stores in Hampton Roads, my number of shoes gradually crept up.  When Glenn returned from deployment he looked quizzically at the stacks of shoe boxes in the closet but said nothing.  Instead he set about designing an enlarged master bedroom suite with a walk in closet that would accommodate my shoes (and his as well).  But then I got pregnant and a sad thing happened.  With my pregnancy came bloating and swelling that made it impossible for me to wear any of my shoes.  Under duress (and pain) I dutifully went to Nordstrom's where I purchased a pair of black Dansko clogs. They were ugly but I hate it admit it, comfortable and I found myself wearing them exclusively for the remaining months of my pregnancy and beyond.

Much to my dismay, when I returned to the point of wanting to wear cute shoes again, none of them fit. Yes, in the course of my pregnancy my foot had increased by half a shoe size making all but a handful of my beautiful shoes unwearable.  I was horrified but continued to try to squeeze into them on occasion while those Dansko clogs became my staples.  I could have replaced some of them but a collection that has been amassed over many years is not easily replaced.  Besides, with a child, I had other things to be spending our money on.  Unable to part with them I moved them all overseas with us and stacked them in piles in our wardrobes.  Every once in a while I would break them out for a reception only to regret it later.  Not only were they horribly uncomfortable but walking in heels on Albania's broken streets and sidewalks means taking your life into your own hands. Desperate for comfort and practicality I discovered Clarks, a good old European shoe that was study enough to withstand Albania (and the rest of Europe's) rough-on-shoes surfaces.  The shoes aren't sexy or cute but they work for my current lifestyle.  (If my twenty year old self could see me now, she would simply die).

As we prepare to move again, into a house that will be much smaller than what we have now, I made an important decision.  I was going to truly purge my shoes once again (and then some).  Anything that didn't fit, wasn't comfortable, or I hadn't worn since we arrived in Albania would be donated.  So last night while my boys were out I steeled myself with a glass of wine and set to work.  Unceremoniously I went through all four of my wardrobes and discarded shoes that I had forgotten I had even owned.  As I opened the boxes I peered at footwear that I didn't even remember buying, couldn't imagine having bought, or looked at lovingly.  It was hard but I did it.  In the end over fifty pairs of shoes left the house last night.  Will I miss them?  Probably not.  I'm sure at some point in the future I will be looking for that pair that perfectly matches a dress and wonder where they went.  I know that when it comes time to move I will not have to endure the mutters of astonishment from the movers. (Yes, it doesn't matter what language you speak Mr. Mover, I know you are passing judgement on the number of my shoes).

I still love shoes and am horrified that my son only wants to wear sneakers with everything but I know that my shoe phase is behind me.  It was fun while it lasted but now my middle aged feet are thanking me for finally realizing the wisdom that comes with wearing sensible footwear.  They may not be the sexy sky-high heels of my twenties but they are the perfectly appropriate--and comfortable-- footwear that makes this temporarily living in Europe mom's feet happy.