Saturday, June 29, 2013

From Tiny Pieces Of Stone, Artwork Forms

A small framed mosaic representing days of work
comprised of hundreds of pieces of tile, stone, and glass
In their most basic form, mosaics are a type art work created through assembling small pieces of tiles, stones, or glass to depict larger scenes.  During ancient times mosaics depicted both the times and served as a means of paying homage to the gods and idols whose presence influenced daily life.  Mosaics may have been designed to be a part of a wall or a floor; they were both small and grand in scale; their subject matter could have been a simple ornamental design or more often, depicted an important religious figure.  Through luck or circumstance some mosaics are better preserved than others.  All too often I hear of mosaics that have been unknowingly destroyed by the actions of mother nature and time or even intentionally pillaged by unscrupulous humans looking to make a quick buck.  Many of the better preserved mosaics are in their current condition because they have been protected from the elements.  Regardless of their condition, these surviving mosaics represent an art form as old as time itself and having the opportunity to view them is a real treat.  In this part of the world, during visits to museums, churches, and excavated ruins the viewing of mosaics is often the highlight of the visit.  Such was the case during a recent trip to the ancient Illyrian city of Bylis when my group had the opportunity to view a large mosaic that was normally protected from the elements by a thick layer of sand.
A temporarily uncovered mosaic at Bylis

Not all mosaics are ancient however as the art form is still practiced by a small number of skilled artisans. And as such,  I was recently fortunate enough to be able to visit a mosaic workshop right here in Tirana.  In his small studio tucked into an alley off of one of Tirana's main streets, artist Eduard Sinaj creates mosaics that are commissioned  by individuals, businesses, and churches throughout Albania and the region.  His mosaics are large and small and grace private residences, local businesses, churches and cathedrals throughout Albania.  His work is just as likely to depict ancient religious figures and icons as it is to portray scenes of modern still life and abstract designs.  All of this is proof that this ancient art form is still practiced and appreciated in today's modern world.

As a part of the visit to the studio Mr. Sinaj explained in great detail the process from bringing a mosaic from concept to reality.  It all starts with an idea and only takes off from there.  The variety of small stones and tiles-- from jewel toned glass and opaque stones to highly prized Murano glass and tiles gilded with silver and gold-- all of them have the potential for becoming a part of a mosaic.  Despite the modern technology that is available in this day and age, Mr. Sinaj goes about his work by hand, sketching the designs, shaping each stone, and placing each tile onto the work surface individually.  It is no wonder that even the smallest mosaic can take months to complete.  Smaller mosaics are completed entirely within the studio while larger ones start in the studio then are assembled by a team of artisans at their final destination.  The painstaking work is truly impressive and makes me, a person without an artistic bone in my body, truly envious.

The surface on which the mosaic will be created

Glass, tile, and stone chips.....a deconstructed mosaic

Tiles  are still chiseled and shaped by hand

A mosaic that has been commissioned by a local apartment complex

Mr. Sinaj's work is truly amazing and I can see why his talents are in such demand.  And I love the fact that this ancient art form is continuing to be practiced in an age when new and modern seems to be all the rage.  I was so impressed with what I saw that Glenn and I are contemplating commissioning our own (small) mosaic so that we can take a part of Albania's rich heritage with us when we depart.  Now if only we can decide what we want..........

A sampling of Mr. Sinaj's work

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Creating Traditions

Because taste testing is a critical
part of making any dish
Traditions.  Countries and cultures have them as do families and individuals.  Traditions may focus on a holiday or annual celebration and they may include arts, music, dance or food.  They may be elaborate and over the top or simple and discrete.   They are something we can look forward to when the we need that little boost or events we remember fondly.  Traditions are what unite us as families, communities, and countries.  For me, traditions are the one thing I can hold onto regardless of where I am living at any given time.  And for those of us living nomadic lifestyles, family traditions are even more important since we are rarely in the same place for long. Whether in the United States, Albania, or soon to be Belgium, my traditions are what ground me and define who I am.

So what are my traditions?  Some revolve around holidays and I'm quickly realizing, most involve food.  Ever since I was a little girl I've always loved the entire festive season between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Growing up, Thanksgiving was about spending time with family and friends who were like family (and of course eating copious amounts of food).  You never knew who would be sitting around our Thanksgiving table (or tables as has been the case in some years), but that was a part of the fun.  Early in our marriage Glenn and I were a part of the collective group of family and friends who gathered around my mother's table on that last Thursday in November.  But since we've been in Albania and have been unable to join the masses, we've replicated the big "family" dinner by inviting friends to join us in this most American of all traditions.  Following closely on the heels of Thanksgiving, Christmas is another time to celebrate and we have annually held a large holiday gathering at our house--where ever that may be-- for friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.  The location and guest list may change but the decorations and the food remain the one constant with this tradition being the single party I look forward to hosting all year.

These are all "big" events but on a daily basis, we have developed other traditions involving just the three of us that are just as treasured.  Since we've been in Albania, Sunday mornings are all about leisurely breakfasts at home.  This is the one morning during the week when we don't have any place to go and we fully take advantage of that.  Whether it be waffles and bacon, French toast and sausages, or a variety of other breakfast goodies, we all look forward to these weekend treats.  Sidney is so attuned to our family tradition that the first thing he does upon waking is sniff the air to try to determine what the morning's menu holds in store for him.

And because we are a family who adores their food, we've recently developed another culinary related family tradition.  My boys love their pizza and as such, we've started including home made pizza as a part of our weekly menu.  I don't love it as much as they do, but I love what family pizza night means.  It is the one time I put away my desire to be alone in my clean kitchen. On this night we are all in the kitchen together working in tandem to achieve a single goal.  And we all have our assigned roles.  I'm in charge of making the dough and prepping the toppings.  With his endless level of patience, Glenn is the one who rolls, and much to Sidney's delight, tosses, the pizza dough to prepare it for the next step. And Sidney is in charge of decorating each pizza.  Standing on his stool he anxiously supervises the previous steps waiting for his turn in this whole process.  Of course a lot of taste testing is involved, and the spreading of the sauce and sprinkling of the cheese can get quite messy, but this is all a part of the fun.  Sidney's excitement is contagious as we wait for the pizza to bake and that is why I look forward to this weekly family tradition.  Exotic vacations may be nice but our best memories are being created right here.

Traditions don't have to be fancy; they just have to be meaningful to those involved.   Tonight is another family pizza night and already the excitement is building.  And that is what my traditions are really all about.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Forty & Fabulous

Even Google is helping me celebrate..kind of creepy but
who would have imagined this 40 years ago.
The day that has been 40 years in the making has finally arrived.  After watching numerous friends celebrate their milestone birthdays over the past few months, it is now my turn to turn the big 4-0.  Even as recently as a few years ago I had dreaded this impending milestone; so much so that when I hit 32 I decided that that number was a good one to keep and each year I kept telling myself that I was 32 (again). Even my husband got into the action by annually giving me a birthday card verifying this number.  But within the past couple of years, my mindset has slowly changed and now that this once dreaded birthday is here, I'm realizing it isn't so bad. After all, age is really relative and like a fine wine, I'm just getting better with each passing year.

A few weeks ago Huffington Post blogger Amy Wruble posted a rather humorous take on 40 things about turning 40.  I ignored the article the first few times it popped up on my Facebook page but after the sixth posting I clicked on the link to see what had so many of my friends Facebook sharing.  The top forty on turning forty provided a humorous take on life issues ranging from purchasing one's first pair of reading glasses and selecting the comfortable shoes over the sexy ones to upgrading the quality of skin creams you use and the lack of current pop culture knowledge many of us now have. (You can find Wruble's entire post here and read all forty of her points for yourself).  I'll admit that I've purchased at least one, if not more, of the afore mentioned items myself in recent months and am so far out of the "what is popular" loop that I've just given up trying, so these comments hit rather close to home.   As I continued down the list I found myself agreeing in some way with much of what was written but rather than getting upset with and bemoaning the realities of turning 40, I mentally embraced them.

And here is why: I didn't care much for my 20's since I spent that decade trying to find myself professionally and personally and achieving neither great results nor satisfaction along the way. (I often wonder about people who look back on their 20's and wish they could live them all over again. Maybe they were just luckier than I was but personally, I wouldn't want a replay that time period for all of the tea in China).  My 30's were much better with each and every one of my "32nd years" being an improvement over the last and it has been in the past few years that I feel as though I've finally hit my stride.  I now know who I am and am comfortable with it.  I'm far from perfect but I know both my strengths and weaknesses and rather than dwell on my faults I'm learning to embrace them all.  I'll never be tall or skinny nor will I be rich or famous.  I'm not going to be a career super star nor am a I going to be president.  And that is o.k.  I'll never have so many friends I can't keep track of them but those that I do have will always be special and important to me.  Over time I've learned which battles are worth fighting and which ones it is just smarter to walk away from.  I realize now that it is more important that I am true to who I am and what I believe in than it is to be popular.  I've learned to bite my tongue when necessary and turn the other cheek if doing so is for the good of the group.  I'll never win a mother-of-the-year award but I also don't think I'm imparting too many lasting scars on my son.  It is doubtful that I will write the great American novel, become a world famous chef, travel to all of the countries in the world or visit all of the national parks in the United States (all dreams at one time or another) but I will make it a point to visit the places I really want to see, continue to cook up good family dinners, and blog from my little corner of the universe.  And I am happy with all of this. If someone had told me ten years ago that I would feel this way about so many things, I would have laughed but today I understand this to be true.  And this is my more mature, 40 year old reality.

My real birthday celebration was a girl's trip to Spain last month (another benefit of being older is also having the funds to do the things I enjoy doing) so today will be quiet and low-key.  Thanks to Facebook I've received birthday greetings from friends around the globe and I even received a special birthday message on my Google search screen.  (I find this to be a bit creepy but that is a conversation for another day).  This afternoon I had lunch and laughs with great friends and tonight will be dinner with my boys.  And that is just the way I want it. After all, being older and wiser I realize that being all flashy and splashy just isn't my style.  Been there, done that, tried it, and it just didn't work out.  All that pomp can be saved for the "young-uns" because I like things just the way they are.  So bring on the 40s................they are looking to be fabulous.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

An Under Appreciated Albanian Treasure

A cornerstone captured in
black and white
One of the things I love the most about Albania is the ability to get out and explore areas that are remote and off the beaten path.  Sometimes this means just getting in the car and driving to where ever the "road" takes us but other times it involves participating in an organized tour to visit some of Albania's hidden gems.  This past weekend I had the opportunity to do just this when, along with a group of others from our Embassy, I participated in a tour of the Bylis Archaeological Park in the southern part of Albania.

The ancient Greek speaking city of Bylis dates back to the mid 4th Century BC.  Located on 30 hectares 524 meters above sea level, the walled city was at various times controlled by the Roman and Illyrian empires and for a brief period of time the city had its own form of currency.  As is evidenced by the ruins of five separate basilicas (coined A,B,C,D, and E by archaeologists since the ruins did not reveal with certainty the true names of each church) found within the city walls, religion played a pivotal role in daily Bylis life.  Much to the delight of archaeologists, numerous intact mosaics have been discovered amongst the basilica ruins.  Other finds at the site include the remnants of the old arsenal, numerous cisterns that provided this hilltop city with their source of water, the thermal baths, and a vast amphitheater that could seat thousands of people and the houses of ordinary citizens.  As was characteristic for cities of this time, fortress like gates (six in the case of Bylis) were the only means of egress into the walled city.

Ruins, ruins, and more ruins sitting atop the mountain

A mosaic in the ruins of one of the five basilicas
that were in Bylis.  It is normally protected by sand but
they uncovered it for our group.

An intricate archway; I can only imagine how impressive all of
Bylis must have been in its hey-day.
Our extremely knowledgeable English speaking tour guide provided us with an impressive overview of the history of Bylis.  My immediate thought upon arriving was that the ruins of Bylis reminded me of the ruins of Pompeii.  The layout of the city was similar as were the explanations of the significance of each excavated ruin.  As we scrambled over rocks and explored the ancient ruins he explained the history and purpose of each spot we stopped at.  His explanation provided us with insight into how the ancient Illyrians --both the well off and the peasants--residing at Bylis actually lived.  (This is a reason I am a huge proponent of hiring a tour guide whenever possible.  To the untrained eye a ruin is a ruin, a rock is a rock, but when the story behind each detail is revealed, the site takes on a whole new meaning).  At each step the guide warned us to be careful since we never knew what we might step on.  From uncovered cistern holes that extended down farther than the eye could see to unstable rocks, and the thousands of small snails that crunched when you stepped on them (really), each step had the potential for an adventure.  Earning his fee, our guide even led our group out of the main ruins and down a thorny path that was once an ancient road leading into the city.  Here he showed us the caverns from which most of the rock that built the city came from and an engraved stone etched with the name of one of the area's earliest explorers.  And being a good guide, he scared away any potential snakes by beating the bushes and pounding the path with a metal pole as we went!

Ruins of the Roman (thermal) bath.  They took bathing
seriously in this part of the ancient world.

Looking west from Bylis, the sweeping view of the river below.
Last year we had the opportunity to visit Apollonia, another national Albanian archaeological site, which while relatively close to Bylis, has a much more robust and developed tourism footprint. Whereas Apollonia was buzzing with visitors during our March visit, with the exception of a handful of workers preparing for next week's Miss Albania contest, we had the entire site of Bylis to ourselves.  Our guide informed us that Apollonia averages 100 visitors a day while Bylis receives a total of 500 visitors a year.  The lack of a well developed tourism industry at Bylis was evident but in my opinion, that is what made this site even more special.  There was something awe inspiring about walking in the footsteps of such an ancient civilization and yet I am surprised that more people haven't sought the site out.  It is with mixed feelings that I wish more people would visit Bylis.  Since the first dig in 1978, a lot of work has already been done to preserve and restore the site but more still needs to be done.  (And at roughly two dollars per admission, the park has a long way to go in even covering their expenses solely through visitor fees).  Increased interest in the site could generate more revenue but an influx of visitors could potentially take away from the pristine and wild feel of the place.  I guess you can't have it both ways but with that said, I am still advocating that more people get out and visit Bylis if the opportunity arises. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, June 14, 2013

It Is Finally Official.....

.................or as official as it will be until we are physically there.  After months of waiting we have our next set of written orders in hand.  Come January, the Brown family will be heading to Mons, Belgium for three years. 

This is the season for the moving game, or PCSing, a.k.a. permanent change of station, as it is known in military lingo, and it is something military (and foreign service) families are all too familiar with.  You are barely settled in one location before you are putting out feelers for your next set of orders.  A friend of mine once likened the process to on-line dating.  You research what is out there and what is the best fit for you (and your family)then make your wishes known hoping someone likes you back. Sometimes it works out but other times it doesn't.  It can be an opportunity for positive change---if you don't like where you are or don't like your job, you aren't committed to it in the longer term-- but it can also be upsetting and tumultuous for all those involved.  Spouses may have to quit jobs, children may be removed from friends and schools they love, and social networks are often shattered.  When we were in Norfolk we were fortunate that Glenn was able to move from one job to another without our family having to actually pick up and move.  This pattern continued for several job rotations meaning we kept our house, I had continuous employment, and we kept our every growing circle of close friends, but most people aren't so fortunate.  More often than not, every two to three years families are packing up, house hunting, and moving half way across the country or even the world and re-establishing themselves before staring the process all over again.  This is the game we knowingly jumped into when we decided we were ready to move beyond Norfolk.

It wasn't long after we arrived here in Albania that we began asking ourselves what was next.  Sure we would be here for two years (which stretched into two and one half) but it is never too early to start thinking about and exploring what could come next.  Initially we thought another embassy tour might be in order or more likely a return to the States since Sidney would be starting school and I could return to work but the longer we were overseas, the more the "European bug" got us and we decided we wanted to stay here.  Not in Albania per se, but in Europe in general.  At first it looked like Germany was in our future and I dutifully began researching houses, school, and family life there. It all sounded good and I was getting excited.  Then we were told that it would be Belgium, an option we had never even considered but were even happier with yet I hesitated to do too much research before the move was definite.  After all, we had been down this route before and I didn't want to get my hopes up too much lest I be disappointed in the end. 

Just to demonstrate how far in advance some of these moves can be planned, the family that was set to replace us had been identified and was asking us questions about the country before we even arrived in Albania.  This advanced planning isn't always the case, however.  In fact, it rarely is.  I know several people who are supposed to PCS this summer who are still awaiting their official orders in writing. I know that in this era of budget cuts, sequestration, and all around cost cutting we are lucky to have orders in hand seven months before our move date.  Verbal orders are fine but until you have that ream of paper in your hot little hands, you can't plan the things that really matter. These orders are really your passport to your next life since you can't house hunt, register your children for their new school, or schedule your move without them.  And we now have them!

As I said earlier, it will all be real once we land in Belgium.  In the meantime, however, I have schools to research, houses to hunt for, and the next three years to plan out.  As difficult as it can be to pick up and move, the possibilities of what the future holds for us are too exciting to resist.  And I can't wait for what is in store for us.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Water Water Every Where

Ready to hit the beach
Today is World Oceans Day.  Regardless of where you are, whether it be in the middle of an African desert, high atop an Alpine peak, or at the beach, oceans connect all of us and effect all of us in one way or another.  And as such, the 8th of June is the day dedicated to these massive bodies of water.  And water is everywhere.  Seventy-one percent of the earth's surface is covered with water with the oceans accounting for 97% of the world's water.  Long before there were trains, airplanes, or automobiles, humans were moving around the world via water.  The oceans are home to millions of sea creatures and they also provide vital food and nourishment to the world's human population.  Any way you look at it, oceans are important and must be conserved and preserved.

Today is a day to bring awareness to this important, yet endangered natural resource.  So what did we do to recognize the day?  We headed to the beach of course!  On what felt like the first warm and rain free Saturday in months we decided to head north and explore the beach area around Shengjin.  Located just over an hour north of Tirana, Shengjin is home to both a commercial port and the Albanian Navy's northern base.  It also has the hotels, boardwalks and beachfront restaurants that you would expect in a seaside community.  (It is also home to a large number of oil storage facilities that add to the economy of the area but do little for the pristine beach feel we were looking for).  Continuing with our desire to avoid the commercial beach/boardwalk scene and following the recommendation of a friend, we headed "out of town and up and over the hill" (these were her exact directions) north of Shengjin to an area called Rana e Hudun in search of unadulterated sand.  Fortunately our four wheel drive allowed us to get there and what we found shouldn't have surprised us, but it did.

Set amongst the desolate beach we sought, we found a couple of well developed beach front resorts, complete with row after row of umbrellas as well as the typical half built concrete structures that are typical sights throughout Albania.  These beaches were essentially void of people since despite the beautiful weather, beach season in the Balkans does not start until July.  It was obvious that money had been invested in these properties since they were clean, relatively well maintained and most importantly, their beaches were free of litter and debris.  We continued on until the narrow rutted road dead ended right on the beach.  When we got out to explore the relatively deserted beach (there was only one other family there with a ubiquitous black Mercedes parked on the sand) we were immediately saddened to see that the beach was covered in trash and debris.  In fact, the scene was reminiscent of the one we had encountered during our visit to Cape Rodon last fall.  Household waste, construction debris, and hypodermic needles shared the sandy space with seashells, seaweed, and driftwood.  Despite the off shore fishing nets that would normally attract them, we also noticed a lack the typical birds that live along the shore.  Where was nature in this natural environment?  The entire scene left me feeling a little sad.

But as is the case with many things here, we made the best of it.  We tailgated out of the back of our SUV then set out on a walk along the beach.  Glenn and I abandoned our shoes and carefully stepped our way through the surf.  (Sidney remained shod as to avoid any dangerous steps).  I collected seashells that will be added to our growing collection and even used a plastic bucket that had washed ashore to hold them.  If you avoided the occasional piece of plastic or random shoe (there were a surprisingly high number of single shoes dotting the shore) that washed ashore in the surf, the water was nice.  Whether looking at the rocky hills to our north or the vast sea and distant mountains to our south and east the views were magnificent.  The key was just to not look down at the sand which we actually had to do in order to avoid stepping on any foreign objects.  We were both reminded of a conversation we had had with a hotel clerk in Croatia last year who, upon discovering we were living in Albania, had bemoaned the Albanian trash that was starting to wash up on Croatian shores.  Whether we've travelled north or south along the Albanian coast, we've witnessed this for ourselves.  And given the way the world's seas and oceans connect all of us, this is truly scary.  One country's trash disposal habits and approach to the eco-system can have a negative impact on all of the world's water.  And this is why we must all care about our environment.  We owe it to ourselves, our children, our neighbors children, and the entire world.

Surf walking

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Everything Will Be All Right

My happy place:  the beaches of Kauai
I've been in another funk recently.  Perhaps it is the weather.  What should be a hot June in the Mediterranean has been anything but.  Days are cool, overcast, and filled with rain with sultry summer days only a distant memory.  I may not love the scorching heat but a little sun now and then would do me wonders.  I know I've been struggling to stay focused on the here and now rather than thinking ahead a few months to when we will move onto our next big adventure.  I'm in the midst of an inner turmoil with changing my personal expectations for myself and the community around me since the only thing that comes from obsessing over what I see are the social faux pas and other as sundry woes around me is sleepless nights (for me) and a sense of profound disappointment.  I continually remind myself that I can only change myself and must learn to accept others for what they are regardless of whether or not I agree with them.  And most of all I haven't been writing; well, I have been writing but have been wisely not publishing my thoughts least I offend or ostracize someone.  (It is really better to keep some of these thoughts to myself for the time being).  On top of all of this I've been feeling that everything I do is obligatory.  Sure I know must go to work if I want to get paid but what about all of those unpaid responsibilities I am expected to take on.  I don't have the option to decide not to attend that reception or host that dinner because I don't feel like it or a better offer comes along (all excuses I've heard from several people over the past few weeks). 

For me (us) the show must go on and as such, we attended a reception on Monday night then hosted a sit down dinner in our home yesterday.  Being out of character for myself, I approached both half-heartedly.  Monday I got dressed minutes before we were to depart and started wondering how long we would have to stay before we even arrived.  (In the end my lack of preparation left me feeling like a frump but I had a great time and, being totally out of character for us, we stayed until the very end).  Yesterday's dinner was planned in the same hasty manner.  Feeling burned out with cooking I succumbed to cooking pseudo-Italian food for a table full of Italians (Early on I had made a vow to never cook the food from our guest's home country but desperate times call for desperate measures).  My one addition to the otherwise Italianesque meal was a chilled cucumber soup which would have been more appropriate if the weather was hot instead of cool and damp.  Minutes before dinner was served I found myself questioning this menu choice and wondering if the lack of a soup course would be noticed.  But the soup quandary wasn't as bad as my opening a container of desperately needed cream only to find that it had turned bad well before its stamped expiration date.  This resulted in a harried phone call to Glenn who went to the store on his way home to pick up fresh supplies. Unsure of what he needed to buy for me, he snapped pictures of possible items for my approval before heading to the check-out line.  All of this ended with my making last minute preparations that did nothing to improve my outlook on the evening. 

But in the end, it all worked out.  We did have a great time at the reception on Monday night and enjoyed that event more than any other we have attended to date.  Yesterday the rain stopped, the puddles disappeared, and for a brief time before it grew dark, the sun even came out.  Pre-dinner drinks were so relaxed and enjoyable that I didn't want to move onto the actual dinner. Dinner itself was perfectly cooked and executed with even the soup, which was initially met with skeptical looks from guests, being consumed with gusto.  Conversation was lively and intellectually stimulating and as I sat back and looked around me I realized that this dinner was so much more than the representational one it had set out to be.  We were amongst friends; people who originally came together for professional purposes but have since achieved a sense of comfort with one another that has moved us to another level.  This was a group where we could discuss topics covering everything from international politics and religion to family and (yes) even the weather.  We ate, laughed, drank, then ate some more.  Guests lingered at the table long after the typical departure time and I didn't mind.  Rather I enjoyed it.

I won't go as far as saying that Albania is my happy place, but in the end it isn't always the location that makes things all right.  The important thing is to carve out your own niche and to surround yourself with like minded people and friends.  Last night I did just that.  And, for good measure, I fell asleep thinking about the beaches of Kauai, my personal geographic happy place.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Matchbox Wars

Matchbox Vans a.k.a. furgons (in Albania)
I am the mother of a little boy.  As such I continually find myself surrounded by Matchbox cars, those tiny four wheeled vehicles that parents have been tripping over for generations.  Called "makina" in our house (this being the Albanian word for cars), just a few of these little vehicles can entertain Sidney for hours.  It must be a boy thing since I can understand neither his fascination with watching the little wheels go round and round nor his watching them repeatedly race across our slick tiled floors, nor the most favored activity of all, "crashing makina" which involves re-enacting head on collisions between two poor cars.  Perhaps I shouldn't complain about his interest in cars since a handful of these toys can entertain Sidney for even the longest dinner out.  In fact, his first inquiry upon our sitting down at a restaurant table is to find out which cars I have hidden in my purse.

Sidney received his first Matchbox as a gift from a friend and seeing his interest in them, I soon supplemented the lone car with a few more. Then last summer Sidney's grandparents visited and brought a large collection of the small cars that had been Glenn's when he was a child.  (Antiques!). Soon it seemed as though Sidney's entire playroom had been turned into a parking garage for miniature vehicles.  As any parent of a Matchbox owner knows, these little cars are always under foot.  Whether it be in the kitchen, living room, or stairwell; on chairs, under dressers, or sandwiched between sofa cushions, those cars seem to transport themselves into every nook and cranny in the house.  I just can't escape them as I seem to be stepping or sitting on them at ever turn.

Regardless of the mess that is created each day, the pre-bed time ritual in our house involves picking up each and every toy.  And this includes the 100 plus cars that call Sidney's playroom home.  Some nights the pick up process goes smoothly--or as smoothly as picking up a messy room with a pre-schooler can be.  Most nights, however, a lot of coaching and persuasion is involved.  The cars seem to get even more interesting as bedtime approaches and rather than dumping all of the cars in a box Sidney insists on methodically driving them around the room before placing them in individual parking spaces.  (At least he is being neat????).  Rather than getting faster each evening, these pre-bed rituals are actually increasing in length.  I may be partially to blame for this since in my quest for gender free toys, Sidney's Christmas gift was a Melissa and Doug kitchen set complete with a make-own-pizza kit that has 75 individual pizza toppings.  Throw in a few pieces of play fruit and vegetables, each of which needs to be "washed" and then tasted before being put away and preparing for bedtime is becoming an hour plus chore.  (Of course, the "washing and bleaching" routine---he is a good Albanian boy after all---followed by the absolutely adorable rubbing of the tummy any making yummy and lip smacking sounds almost makes this prolonged process worth it).  Regardless of the toy it seems that they are all small and multiply on their own.

Boy toys..........maybe Barbie dolls would be easier to deal with.  Don't they come with fewer small parts and accessories?