Friday, May 31, 2013

Happy Anniversary......... my blog!  Yes, it's been two years since Albania or Bust went live and I started blogging about this crazy life of ours.  My tag line includes the phrase "the wild ride we are on" and little did I know at the time I typed out those words how true this really would be.  I started the blog as a way to keep friends and family updated on our adventures but since the first entry it has evolved into so much more.  My first entry back on 31 May 2011 talked about the final remnants of our house getting packed up and moved into long term storage as we started on what I thought would be a two year journey. After two hundred and seventy-two blog entries (and counting) I've visited places I never even dreamed about, felt emotions I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, and had experiences that I wouldn't trade for anything.  It hasn't been all good but it has been exciting, challenging, and eye opening and in the end there aren't any regrets.  And all of it has been captured right here.

Yes it has been a wild ride and if things continue to go our way, the fun is only going to continue.  Our initial two years has been extended to 31 months (but who is counting) and if all goes as planned our European adventure will continue until 2017.  (Yes, that is a long time to go without seeing my afore mentioned items that are sitting in a Northern Virginia warehouse).  Eventually this blog's name will likely change but I will continue to write about our family's adventures and everything that comes our way and you my readers will be able to continue reading about it right here.  So here's to another fruitful year of family adventures and my blogging about them.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Going To The Sea

A peek at the water
 Montenegro.  This tiny country with only 700,000 residents due north of Albania didn't even exist when I was in school.  Once a part of Yugoslavia, she didn't gain her independence until 2006 when she broke away from Serbia. In Albanian, Montenegro is translated as "black mountains" and the soaring peaks that dominate much of the country, while impressive, have nothing on the miles upon miles of shimmering blue and green coastline. While the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia has become an international destination, Montenegro has until recently, save visits from her nearby Serbian and Bosnian neighbors, been ignored by many foreign tourists. In fact, we had driven along her impressive coast on several occasions while making our way farther north to Croatia but had never bothered to stop.  All of that changed this past weekend when we made the Adriatic coast of Montenegro our destination for kicking off the start of our final Balkan summer. 

Although Montenegro has European Union aspirations, at the moment the closest they have come to membership is to have adopted the Euro as their official form of currency.  Historically this has caused the cost of everything in the country to skyrocket.  Not so in Montenegro (yet anyway).  This, combined with May being considered off season (in fact, Montenegro's high tourist season spans a few short weeks in late July and early August), we found the country to be incredibly inexpensive, mostly void of tourists, and yet completely welcoming to those of us who were there.  Each seaside village we visited was orderly and immaculate, melded history with modern amenities, and surprisingly enough, had a large number of English speaking people working in the shops, hotels, and restaurants.

Above the Bay of Kotor

I've mentioned before that we really aren't beach people.  Blazing sun, hoards of people, and expanses of sand covered with oil slicked bodies really isn't our scene.  Just the thought of spending four days "at the sea" made me a bit nervous but I reminded myself that we were still in the off season.  And there is a lot more to do along the coast than just sit and bake in the sun. Besides, the cool and rainy weather that was predicted reassured me that perhaps it wouldn't be too bad.  And it wasn't.  The weather forecast did keep people away and when the clouds gave way to sun --or at least no rain-- for most of the weekend we had much of the area to ourselves.  It was wonderful and made me wonder why we had waited so long to visit this neighboring country that is only a short car ride away.

The magical enclave of Sveti Stefan
We made the most of our short time away and saw a lot without feeling rushed.  We explored the exclusive enclave of Sveti Stefan where everyone from Hollywood stars to European royalty used to cavort during the 1950s. We had driven past this tiny island on each of our previous trips along the coast without even realizing that it was here.  Sidney had an opportunity to throw an unlimited number of rocks into the water (a little boy's favorite vacation activity) from a beach where the sound of the crashing surf reminded me of an earlier trip to Hawaii.  On the tiny island of Kauai on a section of beach called Barking Sands, the sound of the surf crashing on the beach sounds like a pack of barking dogs.  Both Glenn and I immediately thought of this far away beach when we heard the waves hitting this rocky expanse of Sveti Stefan beach. 
Here we ate a traditional lunch overlooking the island at the one restaurant that was already open for the season and engaged in a lively conversation about Montenegro, America, and Albania with our English speaking waiter.

In the picturesque village of Kotor we climbed up 1350 steps to explore the St. John Fortress and take in the sweeping views of the Bay of Kotor below us.  We also had to take those 1350 steps back down.  Geologists would disagree (and they would be right) but the Bay of Kotor is often referred to as a fjord.  It isn't but the narrow bay surrounded by sheer cliffs is similar to the fjords we visited in Norway.  Driving along the narrow inlets of the bay we took in the sights of the blue water, red tiled rooftops, and the numerous stone churches and marveled at the fact we were so close to Albania yet a world away.  With our "home base" being a hotel just outside of the old walled city in Budva, we spent hours exploring the narrow marble alleys of this Stari Grad.  When the occasional shower did strike we retreated to our hotel where we were able to sit on our balcony, sip wine and listen to the crashing surf.  And of course no vacation would be a vacation if we didn't eat and drink the local specialties.  Much to my surprise Montenegro has a small but growing wine industry that produces some very drinkable reds.  Our favorite wine discovery was the perfect accompaniment to the grilled meats and vegetables that while not fancy, were fresh and delicious each time we ordered them.

Stari Grad - Budva
Our brief stay in Montengro was fantastic.  We explored, relaxed, ate, drank, and soaked up the fresh sea air while avoiding a lot of sun.  To me, that is the perfect vacation.  If the rest of our summer is half as nice, it looks like we are in for a good time.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Technology Detox

This past weekend I did something I haven't done in years; I spent four days completely unplugged and disconnected from technology.  No Facebook, no television, no surfing the web, no blogging, no Pinterest, and no email--well, I did glance at my work issued Blackberry once before returning it to the deep abyss that is my purse.  And funny enough, I didn't miss any of it. In fact, the whole experience felt refreshing.

So what caused my detox you ask?  Taking advantage of a long weekend, we headed out of town to spend a few nights north of the border in Montenegro.  As is the case more often than not, my Blackberry didn't transmit emails consistently so I regulated it to the bottom of my bag.  Besides, we were on a mini-vacation and the last time I checked there really aren't any work related emergencies for me.  Our hotel was beautiful but didn't offer free Internet and  we refused to pay their high asking price for a weak Wi-Fi signal.  At first I thought this would bother me but I actually found myself enjoying being disconnected.  Montenegro (along with Albania) is a big black hole on our GPS system so without our Tom Tom or access to Google Maps we allowed our Lonely Plant paperback to serve as our guide.  We didn't get lost and in fact discovered places we might never have otherwise seen if we had been focusing on a computer generated, pre-planned route.  If a road looked interesting, we followed it.  Instead of scanning the web, posting updates on Facebook, and scoping out our next vacation location (a task that has become a regular part of every trip), we enjoyed just being together as a family without the usual technological disruptions.  In the evenings we read books or sat on our balcony drinking rather decent Montenegrian wine and listening to the sound of the crashing surf below us.  Never one to be truly idle, I did a lot of thinking about everything from future dinner menus to what I really want to do "when I grow up" but didn't jump on the computer to further my research.  (I even jotted notes to myself using the paper and pencil provided by the hotel.  I don't even remember the last time I did this). Without the interruption of ringing phones or news broadcasts we were blissfully unaware of the outside world and it was wonderful.  And for the first time in what feels like ages, I relaxed.  Instead of the initial angst I had anticipated over being disconnected I found myself wishing our four days away wouldn't end.  But sadly enough the weekend came to an end and we returned to our (temporary) Albanian reality.

Yes, I'm now back and reconnected; I have uploaded pictures from the weekend to Facebook and have sent a few emails.  As this post attests to, I'm blogging again.  But my brief time away did me good.  For Americans, Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start of summer which is supposed to mean long lazy days spending time with family and friends, enjoying the weather, and relaxing as much as possible.  And after this weekend I realize that for me, this also means disconnecting from the rapid paced world that is driven by technology.  It really is unavoidable and I'll admit, I do enjoy aspects of being connected.  It allows me to keep in touch with friends and family all over the world and not feel completely isolated while living in a geographically and socially isolated country.  However, I'm determined to no longer be ruled by technology.  So this summer I'm going to disconnect a bit. I'll still blog--daily for the most part since it is my creative outlet-- but I'm going to spend less time in front of the computer.  This means fewer hours on Facebook and the Internet as a whole and I'm going to start picking up the phone rather than using email as my main form of communication.  Maybe I'll even buy a few stamps and hand write a letter or two.  I'm going to pull out my stash of books and read for pleasure rather than wasting hours doing nothing in front of the computer.  I'm going to spend more time just hanging out with Sidney and seeing the world through his three and a half year old perspective.  He is turning into both a thoughtful and pretty funny little boy and I don't want to miss a moment of it.  I feel more relaxed just thinking about my technology diet.
So here's to an unplugged summer; I can't wait.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fine Art of Diplomacy

Ah diplomacy; so many of us think we know what it means to be diplomatic but very few of us are actually able to carry out the mission.  The good old Merriam-Webster dictionary calls diplomacy the "art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations."  A secondary definition is having "skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility."  Living overseas, I think about both of these definitions a lot and how they affect my own daily life.  The first definition may be more likely to apply to the big guns--people who work and move in diplomatic circles on a daily basis-- but we should all take note of the second definition and do our best to practice being diplomatic in our daily lives.  After all, good manners and etiquette never go out of style.

So how do you put being diplomatic into practice?  In my opinion, it is really quite simple.  It means knowing when to ask the right questions or not to ask any at all.  It means being polite, understanding, and non-intrusive and never inserting yourself into a conversation that you have not been invited into.  (The same goes for events- if you didn't receive an invitation from the host, don't assume you are invited and definitely don't ask to be included).  Many dinners and receptions are working events and must be treated as such; rarely are they purely social opportunities since most of the people present probably wouldn't socialize with each other under other non-official circumstances.  I know the same goes for official entertaining in our own home; I may not always want to welcome our guests with open arms but I am unfailingly polite so they are never the wiser about my true feelings. Sometimes this may mean inviting a guest to dinner who I don't personally agree with but in these situations the reality is that my opinion just does not matter.  In situations like this, killing people with kindness is the way I operate and I remind myself that two wrongs just don't make a right.  As a guest it is also important to know when to leave.  You may rage past midnight at a friend's house but unless you have specifically been asked to stay longer, depart before the end time written on your invitation.  But on the same hand, don't leave too early.  Glenn and I learned this the hard way when we once, because of an issue with our babysitter, left a dinner before coffee had been served.  All of the other guests took our departure as a signal that the event had ended and quickly followed us out the door.  We never repeated that one mistake!

I know that it is equally important to be polite in all situations and if necessary, keep my personal opinions to myself  in these settings.  As an American I am acutely aware that any personal opinion I express could be construed as being that of my government and my country.  If appropriate words fail me it is always more acceptable to smile and nod rather than saying something that may offend or be misinterpreted.  I also take my cues from those around me.  Here in Albania it is common to greet people with double air kisses and both bring a small gift when a guest but also give a small gift to your guests.  These are not necessarily customs in America but when in Rome--or Tirana---we follow these leads.  In the end it is essentially a small gesture that really goes a long way. 
Above all, I remember that none of this is permanent. The dinner, reception, concert, or even our time here has an expiration date.  At the end of the day diplomacy is all about getting the work done, getting along with others and neither offending nor embarrassing yourself, your hosts, or your country.  So to quote one of my favorite cartoon characters of all time, "just smile and wave boys, just smile and wave." 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Asking The Right Questions.................Or Not

Curiosity killed the cat; satisfaction brought him back.

References to this adage appeared in William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing cautioning about the dangers of unnecessary exploration or investigation.  The moral is simple; asking too many questions may result in unexpected and perhaps unpleasant consequences.  Whether it be the 1513 or 2013, the principle remains the same.  So what is a person who loves to ask questions--namely me---to do?  How many questions are too many and which ones just aren't the right ones to ask?

I'm curious by nature.  If you tell me something that interests me I am apt to ask at least one follow up question. Or more.  Tease me with just a hint of information and my natural instinct is to pepper you with questions until the full story is revealed.  In some situations this may be appropriate; in others it definitely is not.  I like to think I know where the line of what questions to ask when lies.  I'll ask questions about your views on current news or recent  happenings in your home country but if your answers are cagey or vague I'm likely to not push the issue.  This doesn't mean I won't think about what you said, or perhaps more importantly, what you didn't say, but I have enough tact to know when not to push the issue.  Maybe you can't say more.  Since I dislike being put in uncomfortable situations where I might have to say I can't talk about it, I can respect your position of not being able to do the same. And of course there are some questions that just shouldn't be asked. If you have a question about someone else's family, job, or views, my response is to tell you to ask them yourself.  Please don't put me in the awkward position of having to talk about someone else.  (That my friends is called gossip).  In my opinion asking overly personal questions of all but the closest friends is beyond tacky and is just plain rude.  Maybe you wouldn't mind sharing the same level of personal information but if I want to share that level of information I will be the one to raise the subject.

Ironically enough, I am the same person who immediately becomes suspicious if I am on the receiving end of too many questions.  Ask me how my son is or how our vacation was and I am comfortable with that. Based on your reaction I might even expand my original answer.  Ask me probing questions about exactly what we did, who we saw, and why we travelled to our destination and I might become a bit suspicious. Ask me questions that come completely out of the blue or hint at something you should know nothing about and I am instantly on alert. 

For me, asking questions is all in the nuances of the context in which the inquiry is being posed.  In the right situation questions are a jumping off point for great conversation and greater knowledge about a subject.  In the wrong situation they cause anxiety, suspicion, and perhaps confusion.  Questions can be very good and I will continue to ask them; I will just make sure they are appropriate before I pose them.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Time Out

I'm taking a short time out but will be back soon. Between hosting a series of large events, busy times at work and planning for a much needed quick get away this coming weekend, I haven't had time to blog.  I know!  It makes me sad but I will return. Soon.  I promise.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Honoring America's Military Family (A Re-post)

Tomorrow is Armed Forces Day in the United States.  Many Americans are probably unaware of the day but since 1950 it has been celebrated on the third Saturday of May.  This is a day to pay tribute to men and women who have volunteered to serve in our armed forces.

Being fancy with my favorite military member
First a brief history lesson:  On August 31, 1949, Louis Johnson, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, announced the creation of an Armed Forces Day to replace the separate Army, Navy and Air Force Days that were recognized annually. The consolidation stemmed from the unification of the armed forces under one department – the Department of Defense. The Army, Navy and Air Force Leagues adopted the newly established day. The Marine Corps League declined to drop support for an individual Marine Corps Day but supported Armed Forces Day too.

The first Armed Forces Day was celebrated on Saturday, May 20, 1950. The theme for that day was “Teamed for Defense”, which expressed the unification of all military forces under one government department. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the day was designed to expand public understanding of what type of jobs were performed by the military and the role the military played in civilian life.  It was a day for the military to show off the capacity of the military to Americans who might otherwise be unaware of the strengths of the country's armed forces. It was also a day to honor and acknowledge Americans in the armed forces. Parades, open houses, receptions and air shows were held at the inaugural Armed Forces Day.  Armed Forces Day is still celebrated nationwide today and is part of Armed Forces Week, or as it is recognized in the U.S. Navy- Fleet Week.

And now some statistics:*  Just who makes up today's American all volunteer armed forces?  There are 1.46 million active duty service members and an additional 850,000 men and women in the Reserves.  14.4% of all active duty and 15.5% of the Reserves are women. Outpacing the general population, 37.7% of Officers have advanced degrees. Over half of active duty service members are married and 44.1% of this number have children under the age of 18.  Dual military marriages account for 6.7% of all military marriages and 5.4% of active duty military personnel are single parents.  All together there are 1.9 million active duty family members of which 1.25 million are military children under the age of 18. All total, that is a lot of people, both military and civilian, who are part of the American military family.

Today:  Today Glenn (and I) will recognize Armed Forces Day by hosting a reception.  Invited guests included American, Albanian, and NATO military members and their spouses currently working and living in Albania. In his speech, Glenn will acknowledge the work and sacrifices that both military members and their family members make during long working hours and even longer deployments.  Regardless of our individual nationalities or political affiliations, those of us in the room will all share the common knowledge of what it is like to have a loved one deployed in harms way for months on end.  It isn't easy and in reality, until you have been there, you just don't understand what it is like.

While Memorial Day recognizes those military heroes who lost their lives in battle and Veteran's Day recognizes those who are retired from the Armed Forces, tomorrow is a day to recognize those men and women are currently serving our country.  Please find a military member and thank them for their service.  And while you are doing that, thank their family as well.  Their spouses, partners, children, parents, brothers, and sisters are all doing their part as well.  Together we are all a part of the large military family.

*These statistics and many more are part the 2010 Profile of the Military Community study which includes tons of facts, charts, and graphs that data junkies like me find so fascinating.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Talking About America

U.S. Embassies around the world provide a variety of services in the countries in which they have a presence.  There are the programs that immediately come to mind when we hear about the roles of embassies--consular services for American citizens, the issuing visas to host country citizens wishing to travel to America, and of course working with the local host country governments and militaries to implement U.S. foreign policy.  There is a lesser known, but equally important, component to the work U.S. Embassies do in each of their host countries that gets to the heart of what America is all about.  The Public Diplomacy division of the State Department operates a program that sends Americans out into their host country communities to talk about American culture and share what it means to be an American.  The Speaker's Bureau program reaches beyond the typical politicians, diplomats, and business leaders who interface with the international community by allowing Americans the opportunity to meet with the ordinary citizens of the country. Through this program Americans from the Embassy, employees and spouses alike, go out into local schools and community groups to share a bit of their homeland.   Discussions may focus on American specific holidays and traditions--Independence Day, Earth Day and President's Day are popular topics but educational opportunities in America, popular culture, business and economics, and the electoral process are other popular issues host country residents want to hear about.  Volunteers may speak on these standing popular topics but any aspect of American culture that they are knowledgeable about and excites them is up for grabs as a discussion topic.  The Speaker's Bureau seems to be especially popular here in Albania where every aspect of American culture is observed and emulated by ordinary Albanian citizens.  I've known about this program since we arrived in Tirana and this past week I finally joined the ranks of a Speaker's Bureau speaker.

As a part of their international week, the Memorial International School of Tirana, housed in a former Communist-era school building, was looking for speakers to come talk to their students about their home cultures.  Not feeling excited about any of the potential topics that were timely (I loved the idea of talking about women's history but since this isn't women's history month the subject felt a bit out of date), I selected my own that is near and dear to my heart.  My presentation on volunteering in America would not only discuss the importance of volunteering for both volunteers and recipients but would also discuss how our Embassy personnel has volunteered in Albania and provide my audience with a list volunteer opportunities for them right here in Tirana.  I was excited about my topic and I hoped my audience would share in my enthusiasm.  After all, regardless of where I have been living, I've always made an attempt to volunteer and I'm not alone in my efforts.  In 2011, over 64 million Americans volunteered the equivalent of $171 billion in U.S. dollars in time and in-kind donations to their communities.  Now that is giving back!

I used to speak to large groups on a regular basis but it had been a long time since I spoke formally in front of a group and much to my surprise, I found myself a bit nervous at the prospect of addressing my audience.  The forty or so slouching youth sitting in front of me wearing bored expressions on their faces did little to ease my discomfort.  I opened my presentation with a YouTube video which seemed to reel in my audience -- or at least earned a round of applause.  Most of the audience seemed to warm up to the topic as my presentation went on. Of course there was the group of boys sitting in the back of the room who made faces and threw things at each other for the duration of the entire presentation.  (I guess this behavior is not unique to American culture; boys around the world strive to look cool and disinterested when there are girls present).  I received a few questions and some polite applause as my presentation concluded so all in all I'm going to assume I did alright.

Did what I say make an impression on my audience?  I'm not sure.  What I do know is that I shared a little piece of America with this group of teens and perhaps one or two of them will in turn volunteer in their own communities.  And if they do, my message was a success.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Being Challenged, Finding Comfort

I'm in another writing funk; yesterday I started several posts covering various subjects but just couldn't type out enough coherent thoughts to form a blog entry that I felt comfortable making public.  I'm still feeling that way today but in order to power through this latest block,  I'm turning to NaBloPoMo's prompt of the day to find inspiration and get my creative juices flowing again.  So here it goes:

Today's writing prompt:  Frank Clark said: "We find comfort among those who agree with us - growth among those who don't." Agree or disagree?

My response:  Absolutely! Whether it be at home with my family or out and about with close friends, I am in my comfort zone when I know and like the people around me.  It is easy to be around these people and many times easy equates to comfort. However, I am a person who is always up for a challenge and there is nothing I find more invigorating than participating in a well thought out and intellectually stimulating conversation with someone who is in complete disagreement with me on an issue.  I'm not talking about someone who feels strongly about an issue and justifies their responses with statements along the lines of "because I say so", "because I think so", or "because so and so says so".  Rather I relish a well thought out argument based on a variety of facts, sources, and life experiences that may cause me to be uncomfortable, but one that will also cause me to step back and think about my own stance on the issue.  These conversations definitely take me out of my comfort zone but as uncomfortable as they may seem at the time, I know they are good for me.

During my first few post-college years I had a friend who provided me with just such an intellectual challenge.  As single twenty somethings struggling to find the right job, the right life partners, and the right path in life, we met through a mutual friend and formed a strange friendship that endured for several years.  On the surface we had nothing in common:  he could be considered conservative to my liberal, his religious upbringing was everything that mine wasn't; our political views couldn't have been more different.  In hindsight I have no idea how we even became friends.  The only thing we did have in common was the fact we were both smart, well read, and could argue our points and opinions with conviction.  And we were willing to listen to opposing viewpoints.  I think this was the key to our friendship.  Our conversations were rarely comfortable but over the course of several years worth of dinners and beers, we challenged each other intellectually.  Through our conversations I found myself thinking about subjects from a viewpoint that I would never have thought of on my own.  I can't say he ever changed my stance on any of the more "hot button" issues but it certainly opened my mind to other ways of seeing the world.  

There wasn't any particular event that triggered our parting but over time we drifted apart.  We both changed jobs and houses, got married and had children.  As I've gotten older I know my stance on some issues has changed.  I've become more liberal on some issues and increasingly conservative on others. I'm no longer the slightly naive twenty something who thought I knew everything and was out to change the world.  I am more willing than ever to listen to opposing viewpoints and yes, on occasion I will now (slightly) change my views on issues.  I still find many of these conversations uncomfortable but again, discomfort can be healthy.  After all, how else can we grow?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Attention To Detail

The exterior of the station
Maybe it is the fact I'm living in the land of concrete block construction (a.k.a. Albanian) or the fact that  the country is filled with the trademark lack of architectural detail that identifies buildings built during the Communist Era but during my travels throughout the rest of Europe, I repeatedly find myself in awe of the amazing architecture and attention to detail that is prevalent throughout the Continent.  My most recent moments of awe occurred during my trip to Spain.  With her grand boulevards, sweeping arches, and gold gilded buildings, Madrid was impressive.  I was most struck however, during our day trip to Toledo and the impressive attention to detail that I saw at the Toledo train station.

The original station was designed by architect Narciso Clavería y de Palacios and built in 1858. The current station was rebuilt on the same site and opening in 1920.  With the introduction of high speed rail to Toledo, the station was renovated yet again in the mid 2000s but care was taken to preserve the smallest of the original details.  It comes as no surprise to me that this building is listed as a Property of Cultural Interest and is considered to be a protected monument.  From the outside to the inside of the building, no detail is left untouched.

Inside details on a grand scale

Details, details.........

An old ticket window (everything is now automated)

Even the floor tiles are fancy

While the entire city of Toledo was beautiful it was our stepping off and departure point that impressed me the most.  High speed trains pass through Toledo today but for me just the mention of train travel evokes grand images traveling in luxury and class.  That class was missing amid Madrid's chaotic transit station but I felt it in Toledo.  Yes I thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit to Toledo but first and last impressions count for a lot and sure enough this little train station has left a lasting memory.

The walls that weren't detailed wood were tiled

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day Musings

Three generations of mothers

Mom, Mamma, Mommy, Mother, or hundreds of other renditions; regardless of the actual title the understanding is the same.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines mother as a female parent and also as woman in authority.  A mother is the person who perhaps gave birth to you (or maybe not), who raised you (or maybe not), and who loves/loved and cares/cared for you (or maybe not).  There are women who have wanted to be mothers since they were little girls and there are mothers who only entered into motherhood reluctantly.  There are women who long to be mothers and others who would be better off never bearing that title.  There are women, who by choice or circumstance, will never become mothers.  There are good mothers, bad mothers, and mothers who fall somewhere in between.  In reality mothers come in all shapes, sizes, and incarnations.

And today is (American) Mother's Day.  (Other countries celebrate a similar holiday on different days throughout the spring).  Held annually on the second Sunday of May, Mother's Day celebrates mothers and motherhood.  Today my Facebook wall is filled with pictures of mothers and warm greetings to mothers all around the world.  Unfortunately, however, this day that was once set aside to recognize mothers has become the ultimate of Hallmark holidays.  Entire advertisement campaigns for everything from jewelry and florists to clothing and yes greeting cards, have been designed around buying things for mom.  Restaurants market their special Sunday brunches and I've even seen grocery stores advertising "easy meals" that presumably children and husbands can put together for mom.  In our mass consumerism society the message is that if you aren't spending copious amounts of money lauding your mother, there must be something wrong with you.  It is virtually impossible to ignore today and yes, there are people who would like to do just that.

In the years before Sidney was born I became painfully aware of how hard it is to see motherhood so openly celebrated yet to not be a part of the much yearned for "club."  I shared this feeling of dread with several friends in similar situations.  I knew of others who were mothers in their own right but for a variety of reasons didn't have loving relationships with their own mothers and thus, didn't feel the need or desire to celebrate mom.  I had friends whose sole desire for Mother's Day was a true day off and a little peace and quiet.  And still yet there were my friends whose dearly loved mothers were no longer with them.  All of this can temper an otherwise joyous day with dread and sadness.  I try to keep all of this in mind on days like today.

I am now a mother myself and love my son dearly.  Since his birth I've become closer to my own mother and I have a new, broader perspective on the choices, struggles, and sacrifices she made to raise her three children.  And being a mother definitely isn't easy.  I totally agree with those who say it is the toughest job they will ever have.  And because of this, I guess today is "our" day.  However, we are mothers 365 days a year.  Rather than have a single day to acknowledge our efforts, we should be grateful and say thank you at every opportunity we have to all of the women in our lives.  Remember, a part of the Merriam-Webster definition includes women who are in authority. Think about this broadly and that can include pretty much everyone from biological relatives to friends, mentors and anyone else who has helped shape us into the people, and perhaps mothers, we are today. So we don't have to wait for a single day; rather be kind, respectful and thankful year around.  

Thank you to all of the women in my life who have helped make me the person I am today.

And the little boy who made me a mother

Friday, May 10, 2013

Project Albanian Voices

Today's post is a bit different.  Instead of sharing my own thoughts I'm sharing those of an American linguistic student who is conducting research for a book on the immigration experiences of Albanians through the lens of language and music.  Ashley Elizabeth Woods is looking for assistance in raising money to help her with her field research.  As a history buff and American currently living in Albania, I am intrigued by this project and want to do my part to help support its mission.  

You can read a brief excerpt of the project in Ashley's own words below but for more information or to learn how you can help support this exciting project project click here.

"The true history of mankind will be written only when Albanians participate in its only writing."  This statement is as true today as it was in the 20th Century when the Austrian linguist Maximilian Lambertz said it. The interest in Albania that led to the creation of this project was due to the presence of and assistance by Albanians in a time of dire need.  Awestruck by the history of the Illyrians, their language and the lack of that information that has been present about all of it in most U.S. formal education, one of the aims of Project Albanian Voices is to shed light on aspects of the Albanian culture that are positive (not to portray them as Hollywood villains).  So, the goal of this project is to focus on the aspects of Albanian culture that are positive and inspirational.  One motivational aspect of Albanian culture is the history of how they have defended their homeland from a multitude of antagonistic invaders, saved it from multiple wars and tolerated almost constant political instability.  These stories about the necessity for  migration, be it due to economic factors, deportation or blood-feuds are harrowing and exhilarating.  The tales of bravery in the face of adversity are truly overwhelming and inspirational.

This project focuses on documenting the experiences and stories related to the Albanian people (located inside of and outside of  Albania).  The book will be intended for English-speaking Albanians, academics and experts on Balkan affairs. Ashley also plans to release a simultaneous translation in Albanian so tat the book is accessible to all Albanians.  Her ultimate goal is for the book to be understood in the context of the ongoing immigration debate in the United States which tends to ignore the European immigrants' point of view.

The goal of this Kickstarter project is to raise the necessary funds to travel to Albania during the summer of 2013 to complete interviews and chronicle individual stories related to migration. In order to raise this money by the deadline (May 26th at 11:59 pm), Ashley needs your help.  Only the efforts of an entire community interested in the fair and honest preservation of Albanian history can make this a reality.  If you can donate, please do so at any amount.  If you can help in other ways such as publicizing this via social networks or writing about it in blogs and newspapers, we would thank you immensely."

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Flamenco, Ole!

In full swing

Attending a flamenco performance was on the top of my list of things to do while in Madrid.  I had always heard about this colorful art form that includes singing, dancing, and guitar playing and wanted to experience it first hand.  The colorful costumes and lively dances are the hallmark of this performance art that originated in the south of Spain.  Dating back to the 18th Century and traditionally associated with the poor and the oppressed, today flameno is celebrated throughout Spain and across the globe.  Like so many traditional dances, flamenco is a form of folk art that speaks to the very heart of Spanish culture.  Firey, lively, and colorful are the words I would use to characterize so much of Spanish culture and as such, flameco embodies all of these traits.  Flamenco is such an important part of Spanish heritage that in 2010 UNESCO declared it to be one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Guitar players than opened and
closed the night's performance
On the recommendation of the concierge at our hotel, we made reservations for dinner and a flamenco performance at Corral de la Moreria and El Tablao Flamenco, which since 1956 has been entertaining flamenco seeking visitors in Madrid.  As the audience was sandwiched into a dining room filled with too many tables I was hopeful that what we were about to see would be as good as promised.  With the exception of two older Spanish gentlemen sitting at the table next to us, the audience seemed to be comprised of tourists (including the Americans behind us who loudly proclaimed that they didn't drink alcohol and wanted to be served a virgin pina colada in lieu of the Spanish wine that was offered).  The traditional food was decent but not overly exciting (although I think I may have just made a poor dinner choice) but I didn't have high expectations for the food.  For me, dinner was an after thought since what I really wanted to experience was the performance and that did not disappoint as the instrumental music, songs and dance coming from the small stage were truly impressive.  I wish I understood Spanish since I would have loved to have known the words to the beautiful songs that accompanied the guitars, castanets, and dancers.  The deep baritone voices filled the small room and set the tone for the expressive and sensuous dancing that followed.  In Spanish,  flama means fire and the feet of the dancers, both male and female, were certainly on fire as they danced away.  The night we attended Jesus Fernandez and Belen Lopez were the featured dancers and their movements were nothing short of impressive. Their steps were so rapid that from my perspective their legs and feet were mere blurs.  I found myself sitting and staring in amazement as they danced on every corner of the stage.  In the end I was left speechless.

This flamenco performance was my single favorite part of my Madrid weekend.  I was in awe of it all; the songs, dance, and costumes.  The performance was so good that I would have forgone the less than exciting food and still paid the same price. Yes, I liked it that much.

And more dancing

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Lost In Madrid

Palacio de Comunicaciones
I spent this past weekend in Madrid, Spain.  Under the auspices of early birthday celebrations, a girlfriend and I got away from Albania for a few days and explored all that this fabulous city has to offer.  This was my first trip to Spain and it didn't disappoint. I quickly discovered that Spain is a foodie's paradise and following so close on the heels of our excursion to Paris, I found everything to seem incredibly inexpensive.  (But then again, it might simply be the comparison to what we spent in France).  Madrid is a city that thrives at night; wandering out of the hotel before 9.00 resulted in our having the streets to ourselves but fast forward twelve hours and every inch of sidewalk and cafe space was filled with people.  I had to quickly adapt to the idea of sitting down to dinner at the time I would normally be heading to bed but it was all a part of the experience and totally worth it.  Sure we spent a lot of time eating, drinking, and relaxing but we also crammed a lot of sight seeing into our short stay. Long leisurely lunches--which began at 14.00 and dinners--which began at 10.00 provided the perfect opportunities for people watching.  Because Madrid is a city that attracts visitors from all over the world, trying to guess the nationality of our fellow tourists quickly became a favorite game.  From the tapas and sangria to a flamenco show and magnificent architecture, I fell in love with every aspect of this country. 

When Glenn and I travel our usual mode of transportation is our own two feet with an occasional train hop on-hop off bus served as our primary mode of transportation. I had always seen the big red double decker buses in city after city but with the exception of riding the water taxi version of them in Stockholm, had never hopped on board.  I had always dismissed them as being purely for tourists but do you know what?  We were tourists!  And as I quickly found out you can cover a lot more territory on a bus than you can when you rely solely on your own two feet.  And, when you are not sequestered underground the way you are on the metro, you get a whole new perspective on a place.  While you are limited to the routes they choose (in Madrid's case there are two), a bus ride can give you a good view of what the city has to offer.  From our front seat, roof top perch we had an amazing view of the city's sites and after one complete bus circuit we knew where we wanted to get off and explore.
Templo De Debod
or metro ride thrown in. This time the city's

And explore we did. To get a bird's eye view of the city we rode the telferico across Casa de Campo, now an expansive park but the site of the former royal hunting grounds.  From our cable car we could take in both the city's skyline and the snow capped mountains in the distance.  We visited Puerto del Sol, the spot from where all road distances in Spain are measured and explored the grounds of the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) to see how the other half lives.  (The monarchy is still alive and well in Spain).  Here we were amazed by the sheer opulence and beauty of the palace's interior.  (Unfortunately photography wasn't allowed inside of the palace so my picture taking was limited to exterior shots only).  And then there were the plazas.  One after another, each more impressive than the last, each broad plaza was rimmed by grand buildings and filled with fountains, sculptures, and artists portraying everything from Gothic figures and bronzed statues to Pompeii skeletons and abstract animals.  And the city became even more magnificant after dark. At night the neo-classical Palacio de Comunicaciones anchoring the Plaza de Cibeles illuminiated the streets and created the iconic sight that Madrid is famous for.  But as usual, my favorite part of the trip was simply wandering through the city streets.  Narrow cobblestone streets spiraled off of every square and we quickly found ourselves meandering down one narrow street and up another, each filled with shops, cafes, and interesting architecture.  It was easy to get disoriented but when we stepped into a new square we would use the skyline to reorient ourselves and move on. 

The entire weekend was relaxing and one I won't soon forget.  In addition to exploring a great city I loved having true "girl time".  We talked, laughed, and in what is a rarity for both of us, focused on ourselves rather than our numerous responsibilities at home.  Although a bit early, it was the perfect way to usher in a new decade.  Will I return?  Absolutely. I can't wait to share this city and her environs with my family because  I am sure they will love it just as much as I did.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Sunday, May 5, 2013

National Infertility Survival Day (A Re-Post)

I'm re-posting what I wrote for last year's National Infertility Survival Day.  American Mother's Day is next Sunday but this day deserves recognition as well.  My thoughts remain the same; the feelings just as poignant.  


Today is National Infertility Survival Day.  Most people are probably unaware of this day but to those of us who have struggled with infertility, it is a day that hits all too close to home.  According to the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 6.1 million women in the United States between the age of 15 and 44 have difficulty conceiving and staying pregnant on their own.  I am one of those women.  Today, thanks to my amazing doctor at the Beach Center for Infertility, I am fortunate to have an active, healthy 3 1/2 year old.  Because today is a day that recognizes the 6.1 million of us, I am sharing my own deeply personal story.

Before Sidney was born,  I spent several years unsure as to whether I would ever become a mother.  Like many women my age, I spent my 20s trying not to become pregnant but once I was in my 30s and married, the time seemed right.  Or so my mind thought but my body did not agree.  While so many of my friends and neighbors had their first, second, and even third children, Glenn and I weren't so fortunate.  We were hopeful and tried to remain positive but as each month was met with another crushing disappointment our hope began to fade.

At this time we were living in Norfolk, VA which ironically enough, happened to be a hotbed for cutting edge reproductive medicine.   (I didn't realize that in vitro fertilization was pioneered at Norfolk's own Jones Institute).  After a series of miscarriages, my doctor referred me to a reproductive endocrinologist.  Dr. Flood was warm, welcoming, and supportive and together Glenn and I set about a course of action to overcome the "unexplained" infertility obstacle that stood between us and our much wanted baby.  Over the next 18 months I underwent two surgical procedures, had more blood work drawn and spent more time in doctor's waiting rooms than any person should ever have to endure.  I overcame my fear of needles and became an expert at self injecting hormones several times a day.  I also became an emotionally charged wreck.   Probably much to Glenn's relief, he spent a good portion of this time period out at sea and wasn't home to suffer the emotional mood swings that became a daily part of my life.  Just a few months into this process my body began to feel like a pin cushion that had been invaded by an alien yet there still wasn't any baby.

Everyone deals with infertility in their own way. Some people talk about their experiences openly while others endure the pain privately. To a great extent, I chose the later.  Our families and a few close friends were generally aware of what we were going through but for the most part, we didn't talk about it.  Unless you have experienced the infertility roller coaster, you truly can't understand what it is like.  It is also a deeply personal subject that more tactful people are often uncomfortable discussing.

During this dark period the comments I did hear ran the gamete form positive to negative and just plain strange.  More supportive friends assured us that we would become parents while a particularly callous former friend informed me that God obviously didn't think we would be suitable parents so he was preventing it from happening. Upon hearing this, I was actually speechless for one of the few times in my life.  In what I hope was meant to be a supportive comment, my in-laws even told me that they would be able to accept any child we might adopt as a real grandchild.  In social situations with people we only casually knew the inevitable question was when were we going to having children.  After a time I started bracing myself for these inquiries by having a slew of ready to respond quips in mind.   During this time I was an overly hormonal woman so many of these comments did not sit too well with me.

Instead of reacting to this array of comments, I withdrew into myself.  I sent generous gifts to baby showers but couldn't bring myself to attend.  I spent hours scouring the Internet searching to possible answers.  I convinced myself that if we just kept trying it would work. I continued to change my diet, exercised more, lost weight, and spent numerous sessions in acupuncture all in hopes of making my treatments work.  I was convinced that the third time would be the charm but as the third assisted try turned into the fourth, fifth, and even sixth attempt my body continued to fail me.  Through daily emails and the occasional long distance phone call, Glenn and I discussed how much longer we should try.  After all, this whole experience was taking a physical, emotional, and financial toll on both of us.

As I waited for Glenn's return from deployment, I covertly began to explore the option of adoption.  We were open to the idea but decided to give our current routine one more go before moving on.  Good things can come to those who wait because upon Glenn's return, we started a final round of injections, blood work, and anxiety riddled waiting.  This time luck was on our side and IVF worked its magic.  We were pregnant.  It is impossible to describe the sense of elation I felt that hot June day as I sat in my car in the parking garage talking to Jessica from Dr. Flood's office.  (This was the only place I was guaranteed some small amount of privacy and I had been steeling myself for making what turned out to be the most pivotal phone call of my life).

All of this brings me to where I am today.  My heart continues to ache for those women whose desires to become mothers go unfulfilled.  I have felt both your physical and emotional pain.  I know I am one of the lucky ones.  Because of this experience, I will never take anything for granted again.  In a perfect world we would all be able to readily have the babies we want when we want them. In lieu of this perfect world I wish for understanding, compassion, and continued medical advances in the field of women's health and reproductive medicine.  In the meantime time I hug Sidney tightly each night and silently thank everyone who helped make his existence possible.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Apologizing For Apology's Sake

"I'm sorry."  From the stranger who bumps into you on the street and the waiter who informs you that they are out of the dish you ordered to your three year old apologizing for doing something wrong or a co-worker explaining why they didn't do their share of the joint project, the words can literally be heard everywhere we turn.  So often I hear those two little words and wonder about their true meaning.  They seem to be thrown around in such a cavalier manner that I question whether the person speaking them even realizes what they are saying.  So why do we apologize so readily and more importantly, if the words are so casually thrown around, do they really have any meaning at all?

At home Sidney is quick to spit out the words whenever he thinks he has done something wrong.  Usually they are used in the correct context.  Often they come immediately on the heels of an action that he knows he shouldn't have done.  While we have taught Sidney that he needs to apologize to people when he does something wrong---recently this has involved both spitting and hitting, two horribly rude actions that I am hoping are only a fleeting phase--- I am wondering if we went about teaching the apology lesson all wrong. After all as the words are saucily thrown out along with his sly little smile, I doubt there is much sincerity in their meaning.  When Sidney's words sound insincere, we are quick to discuss that while the apology is appreciated, what he did was wrong, we explain why it was wrong and why the behavior must not be repeated.  Some days I think we are making progress but then Sidney repeats the action echoed by a sassy apology and we are back at square one.  How do we break this cycle?

But toddlers aren't the only ones guilty of insincere apologies.  I hear apologies on a regular basis both at work and in social situations.  All too often apologies are offered in contexts that really aren't necessary.  It has never killed anyone to wait an extra minute or two for their coffee at a cafe so when the barista apologizes for the delay, while appreciated it really isn't necessary.  The same goes for people simply doing their jobs.  The guards at a facility that requires everyone to walk through a metal detector before entering shouldn't be apologizing for simply doing their jobs.  Now when people don't do their jobs, that is another story.  An apology might be appropriate for missing a deadline, failing to follow the clearly stated rules, or being late for a meeting, but if the words don't sound sincere, why say them at all? If you aren't sorry, then don't say it.  Recently I was asked what someone could do to make up for doing something did wrong they claimed they were sorry for.  My response was that if they were truly sorry, the best way to prove it is to not repeat the behavior.  Simple enough. Right?  

I understand the temptation to say I'm sorry.  In many uncomfortable situations where silence fills the atmosphere, those two words may seem like an easy panacea at the moment but if the words aren't sincere, why are they said in the first place.  When I hear it in these situations, much like those with a toddler, I wonder whether the apologizer is sorry for their actions or simply sorry they got caught.  There is a difference.  I know many people will disagree, but while I will apologize if I truly mean it, I won't say I'm sorry if I'm not feeling it.  If I feel strongly about something, apologizing for feeling that way won't change my feelings.  Perhaps it will make you momentarily feel better but it won't resolve anything in the long term.  So if I tell you I'm sorry, I really mean it. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

It Takes A Village

It was an African proverb before Hillary Clinton popularized the phrase with her 1996 best seller of the same name.  The premise is simple; while parents play a vital role in raising their children, so does their entire community.  From siblings and grandparents to friends and neighbors everyone within a community must share in the responsibility of raising the next generation.  Take a historical look at cultures around the globe and you will see that this is true and has been for some time.  In earlier days clans and extended families stuck together if for no other reason that sheer survival in both the social and physical senses.  Sometimes this might mean multiple generations living in the same town, on the same street or in the same neighborhood, or even sharing a house.  Other times it may refer to an entire neighborhood looking out for one another, adults volunteering to coach sports teams and taking part in the car pool, or simply taking the lead in supervising kids playing in the neighborhood. Or more likely, it is a combination of all of these and much much more.  During long ship deployments fellow Navy families united to become one big family to offer support to one another during times of need.  While our blood families may not be close enough to provide assistance, a member of the Navy families was always steps away ready to jump in when called upon.  This is not just a relic of the past nor is it country specific; today I look around my own street here in Tirana and see multiple generations sharing houses and contributing to the raising of the next generation.  Regardless of whom the parent is, all of the adults on the street share in the responsibility of supervising and if need be, reprimanding the children.  Older children look out for the younger ones and younger ones in turn look out for the even smaller ones.  And this is not unique to our neighborhood.  Many of our Albanian friends and co-workers either live with their in-laws in the same house or at a minimum in the same apartment building.  Sure this arrangement provides for built in babysitting but it offers so much more.  From family history, cultural traditions, and the wisdom that only comes with age and experience, a village raising a child is more powerful and beneficial (and easier) that going it alone.

As nuclear families have become more geographically diverse, non-traditional "villages" have become even more important.  As Sidney gets older and we find ourselves living thousands of miles away from our own families and close friends, I am becoming increasingly aware of this.  Sure we can Skype on a regular basis with our families back in the United States and while that is an important part of the support system that is our village, we have had to forge an adopted one for ourselves here in Albania.  Just as we did in Washington D.C. and in Virginia before that, our neighbors and co-workers here have become our friends and these friends have become like family to us.  They are the ones we turn to when we need support and in turn we offer the same.  It is becoming increasingly apparent that in this day and age we just can't go it alone.  While Glenn and I play a key (and the lead) role in Sidney's development, it is our entire adopted village that is helping to raise and shape him into the boy he is.  From our dear nanny and her own grandchildren who play with Sidney to the neighborhood children who taught Sidney to play football (European style that is) and cheer him on as he learns to peddle his bicycle they are all a part of our adopted village.  Our co-workers who provide us with the day-to-day support we need and our friends who serve as our power of attorney should anything go wrong are all a part of our village.  More than ever it truly does take a village to raise a child and we are very grateful for the one we have here.