Thursday, August 29, 2013

Until We Meet Again

No matter how many times I do it, saying goodbye to dear friends never gets easier.  I suppose I should be used to it by now but I'm not.  And as is the case all too often, today I said goodbye to a dear friend here in Tirana.  I know it really isn't goodbye since we will definitely see each other again but her departure means that things are changing, our relationship is changing, and life as I know it in Tirana is changing.  For me, this is all really hard.

We met over two years ago during my first days in Albania.  It was a very hot June day and despite still being jet lagged, with Sidney in tow, I attended my first together of fellow military attache spouses.  For some unknown reason I had been told that none of the wives spoke a lot of English so I should be prepared to speak Albanian.  (In hindsight it is really the opposite; most speak at least some English and very little, if any, Albanian).  Now my Albanian wasn't that great so on the walk to the cafe I practiced sentences I both felt comfortable with and those that would be appropriate getting to know you topics.  By the time I arrived I felt confident that I could do this.  But when I turned to the woman sitting next to me and addressed her in Albanian I was met with a blank stare and asked in perfect English whether or not I spoke the language.  Surprised and relieved I stammered yes and we proceeded to converse in English.  And so began our friendship.

Since that hot day our friendship has grown.  We've shared long lunches (meals that are even considered to be long by European standards) and attended more than our fair share of official receptions.  We've sat through too many garbled dinner toasts and speeches and tried to identify plates of mystery meat together.  (She taught me that claiming to be a vegetarian is always a safe decision).  Together we've witnessed various forms of traditional Albanian dance and music as well as Albanian interpretations of western classics.  We've discussed everything from pop culture to world politics and have both broadened our horizons because of it.  Over time our husbands have become friends and joined into our little mix.  Meals with just the four of us are some of my fondest Albanian memories and after two years I think we've finally convinced them that Americans have no business selecting the wine.  We've traveled together:  from questionable hotel accommodations in Macedonia, to exploring the island of Corfu and most recently a celebratory girl's trip involving lots of food and wine to Madrid, we've created lasting memories that I will treasure forever.

Some people think the nomadic diplomatic life is glamorous but I haven't found that to always be the case.  For every unique opportunity we've had, it has been countered with an unsettling challenge or demand.  All too often our time isn't our own but we must muddle through and find the balance that works for us. I've discovered that this is the case regardless of which country you hail from and having had this dear friend here has made this entire experience infinitely easier.  We've shared personal and professional frustrations and disappointments, joys and celebrations.  We both had successful, full fledged careers prior to meeting our globe trotting military husbands so we have commiserated together about just how hard it is to be a trailing spouse.  She has been my reality and sanity check here in Tirana and has set me straight when I start to go awry.  She gets it and understands and for that I am grateful.  And for all of these reasons, and many more, I am going to miss her so.

But this isn't goodbye.  As I said before, we will see each other again.  Weekly lunches may be a thing of the past but this just means that our next lunch will have to be longer than usual.  Because our family will be remaining in Europe for another three years I know that I will visit her in her home and she will visit me in Belgium.  (However, no matter what I say or do, I can't convince her to return to Albania to visit me before we depart).  However, I know there will be more girls weekends and I'm already compiling a list of destinations.

So dear friend, fair winds and following seas until we meet again.  Come visit (in Albania or Belgium) and I promise you a few laughs,  properly chilled wine waiting and clean slippers by the door.

Monday, August 26, 2013

North By Northeast (Albania)

The Valbona River

Over the past two years we've explored just about every corner of Albania but had yet to visit the far northeastern reaches of the country.  Last summer we visited the mountain village of Thethi but never made it over the mountain pass to Thethi's wild cousin, the Valbona River Valley.  Located in the Albanian Alps just west of where Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro meet, we had been told by many people that this isolated and beautiful area is a must see for us before we leave.  So this past weekend we finally got there.  As is the case with most travel in Albania, getting from one place to another is never easy but it is always an adventure.  Although the country is small, Valbona is so isolated that getting there takes time.  Until a few years ago, the easiest and most direct route involved a rickety car ferry that would carry travelers across Lake Koman to the village of Fierze.  The scenery is supposed to be magnificent and Lonely Planet has repeatedly cited this route as one of the most impressive in the world.  Despite my trepidation over the boat ride, I had hoped we would be able to do it. Think of the stories I could tell!  But alas, this was not to be the case since the ferry has ceased operating.  We were left with two options, the old road which would require upwards of 10 hours of driving over narrow roads or taking the new highway from Albania into Kosovo and back into Albania. We chose the later which also gave us the opportunity to explore a bit of the Kosovo wilds along the way.
When many people think of Kosovo they think of the war torn country of just a few years ago.  While KFOR soldiers still patrol the country and tank crossing signs sit alongside those for cows and trains, Kosovo has come a long way.  Many signs are written in both Albanian and Serbian with the later desecreated with paint.  In many ways, Kosovo reminds me of a more agricultural Albania with better roads and infrastructure.  (For a brief moment we actually thought we were in Albania because we saw a bright green Lamborghini speed past us in one village).  Albanian is the official language of Kosovo, Albanian flags fly proudly alongside the blue and gold Kosovar ones, and the border between the two countries is relatively porous.  (Actually, the border is too fluid but that is a post for another day).  The mountainous border that separates these two countries is simultaneously wild and developed.  We explored the deep valley west of Peje and discovered both untamed wilderness and quaint alpine chalets obviously built with tourists in mind.  The scenery was impressive but it was just a preview of what was in store for us on the Albanian side of the border. 

The Albanian Alps
An old grits mill

The Valbona River Valley is part of the 8,000 hectare Valbona National Park.  In my opinion, this area nestled on the eastern side of the Albanian Alps is the most beautiful place I have visited in the country.  First there was the river itself.  The water was crystal clear and extremely cold (or refreshing depending upon whom you ask) and even at the end of August it gushed down over the white rocks.  I can only imagine what the water looks like during the spring runoff.  The mountains themselves were simultaneously awe inspiring and foreboding.  They loomed over the valley casting shadows over the small hamlets that dot the region.  Snow still covered those craggy pockets where the sun never shines strong enough.  A hike to a waterfall took us over a dry river bed, through pastures, and up into the forests where we were rewarded for our efforts by being able to look down across the valley below us.  Words just can't describe how beautiful it was.
Valbona felt both modern and untouched by the modern age.  Electricity is readily available, although it had been turned off by the municipality during the afternoon of our arrival.  The narrow road leading from Bajram Curri up through the valley was being widened and portions had been recently paved.  Guest houses, campgrounds, and restaurants catering to tourists--mostly backpackers and international visitors-- dotted the valley with new ones 
Remnants of the past- abandoned border patrol
buildings with a priceless view
being built each year.  The trail heads of the numerous hiking trails were well marked with signage in both Albanian and English and in many respects felt similar to national parks in the United States.  But visiting this area is also like going back in time.  One only had to peer into the woods or through fields to see traces of ancient stone houses.  Concrete bunkers and hulking concrete building shells shared space with grazing sheep and new brick block buildings still under construction.  Walking along the road we were just as likely to be passed by an old man on horseback as we were $80,000 Mercedes.  While a growing proportion of the population caters to tourists, most residents are subsistence farmers growing just enough to feed themselves and their families.  Postage stamp sized patches of corn and squash grew alongside houses and barns and the sound of sheep bells woke me in the morning.  Some people welcome visitors into their homes and offer a bed and meals for nominal fees.  The food, like the people, was simple and hearty and it was fresh (as in we saw the lambs being lead to slaughter fresh).  I found myself enjoying the freshly grilled trout--a local speciality-  at dinner and the bread, cheese, and yes, even the warm mug of milk (and I don't even like milk) that we were served the next morning for breakfast.
A traditional northern Albanian building

A "modern" off road vehicle- necessary to
transverse the far reaches of the Valbona Valley

Signs of yet another time:  an abandoned bunker in the morning light
There wasn't anything fancy or pretentious about Valbona but her unadulterated scenery made for a fantastic get away.  I'm so glad we had the opportunity to visit this national treasure before we leave Albania.  It is a place (almost) forgotten by time and that is what makes it so special.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

On A Mission For A Little Red Suitcase

Every parent of a young child has experienced this--the dreaded toilet training phase. For some lucky people it is a relatively painless process but for others, and I put us in that category, it is a long and painful period filled with power struggles, mutual frustrations, and battles of the wills.  And between years of diapers, toilet training educational materials, and incentives, it can be down right expensive.  Most people claim girls are easier to train than boys. And of course there are different schools of thought as to how one should go about potty training.  Do you begin at age two or three or somewhere in between?  Do you just go cold turkey by taking away the diapers or do you ease into it?  For some simply discussing it and modeling behavior is enough while for other children incentives are necessary. I've come to realize that there isn't any right or wrong way but rather you must do whatever works for you and your child.  And for our child it took all of the above and then some.

From the onset Glenn and I suspected that the toilet training process was going to be a long and arduous one with Sidney and we were right.  Like his parents, Sidney is incredibly stubborn and will only do things on his terms and only when he is ready.  We weren't sure when we should introduce the concept of using the toilet but when our nanny suggested doing it shortly after Sidney's second birthday, we were game.  After all she had raised two boys of her own and has been toilet training American boys for over a decade.  Her initial attempts were met with disinterest and our attempts were met with down right refusal.  My own mother kept telling me that he was too young so we backed off.  A few months later after witnessing the fact that so many of his peers were regularly using the toilet, we tried again.  Armed with an Elmo themed potty and Elmo's Potty Time DVD, we thought we were good to go. After all Sidney had been a quick study in everything else we had introduced so we were sure (?) hopeful (?) that he would be in this venue as well.

But the Elmo potty didn't work. Neither did the video. Sidney loved watching it but wasn't inspired to emulate Elmo.  As age two crept closer to age three we increased our efforts.  We started offering small incentives for each success; a tiny piece of chocolate was the initial bribe, the option to pick out underwear just like dad's, the pleasure of being a big boy soon followed.  And still it was a no go on his part.  My nighttime reading became self help manuals for toilet training boys.  According to the experts we were doing everything right but it still wasn't working. Despite my threats that it was the last one I would buy, case after case of Pampers continued to arrive via and I became increasingly frustrated.  Our "deadline" of being toilet trained before this summer got pushed back to before we move onto our next assignment.  At that point we will be enrolling Sidney in a school with a no diaper policy so I was beginning to feel desperate.  We upped the ante on the incentives.  Sidney loves Matchbox cars and asked for "20 new makinas (cars)" when he only uses the toilet.  At last I felt a glimmer of hope since he was identifying his own reward. Every once in a while I felt as though we were making progress.  He would occasionally request to use the toilet at home and dining out in restaurants was always a sure way to solicit a request.  This is a rather scary proposition in this part of the Balkans since many restaurant rest rooms are rudimentary at best.  The driving force behind the requests was usually the reward of getting to wash his hands but we were taking what we could get.   Increasingly Sidney would ask to go when we were bumping down some Albanian road.  Of course he would choose some inconvenient time but fortunately much of the country is rural so stopping by the side of the road really is an option. 
About one month ago while we were packing for our Corfu trip and I was filling my suitcase with a large sleeve of diapers, Sidney upped the ante.  He said he needed his own suitcase for trips.  He went on to tell me that it needed to be red and have wheels so he could pull it himself.  We leaped upon this request and told him that once he was only wearing underwear he could pick out his own suitcase.  He was excited, we were excited and I thought we had turned a corner.  But still no dice. During our recent road trip Sidney made a couple of requests to use the toilet but that was it.  He still talked in great detail about this red suitcase but didn't make any effort to use the toilet.  Glenn and I decided, and informed Sidney, that upon returning to Tirana he was not going to wear diapers any more.  He could wear underwear or be naked but as long as we were in the house diapers would not be touching his little tushie.  He agreed, but we had heard that one before.
The first morning home was a test and as I was getting Sidney dressed I asked him to pick out which underwear he wanted.  I expected a protest but instead he thoughtfully selected a bright blue pair.  He then asked me if daddy wore underwear. When I assured him that he did he proceeded to ask if I did.  A yes answer resulted in the question of whether most people wear them.  After hearing my positive response Sidney declared that only babies wear diapers and he was a big boy and would wear underwear too.  Long awaited success?  Actually yes.  The single accident that day and the one the next resulted in requests to put on new underwear.  (And a request to watch the well worn Elmo video again).  The next week passed without a single accident.  Yes, he still wears diapers at night but he is also increasingly getting up at night to use the toilet.  Sure this is interfering with a solid night's sleep for us, but we'll take it.  Upon her return to work after her extended vacation, we proudly informed Sidney's nanny that he was only wearing underwear.  I dare say that we've finally crossed the hurdle!
So this past weekend we went out and bought Sidney his promised little red suitcase.  He spent quite some time "test driving" the suitcases at the local Samsonite store before making his selection.  A few he dismissed as being "too big for Sidney" before selecting a small red carry on with four wheels.  After making his selection he thanked the sales clerk in Albanian and pulled the suitcase through the mall and out to the car.  At home he moved it into the garage and placed it next to the pile of our other luggage.  Then he went upstairs and said he needed to use the toilet.

Of course, prior to our vacation I recently purchased an extra large case of diapers and not one, but two cases of wipes.  So if anyone  is in need of size 5 Pampers or 1500 wipes, let me know.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Balkan Recap

So how does one sum of 1600 plus (1,652.3 to be exact) miles through six countries over the course of fourteen days?   

A Balkan overview

Upon learning about our summer plans some people told us we were crazy while others were simply intrigued.  (I mean, who goes to Bulgaria and Romania for their summer vacation?)  I have to admit, I was thinking that we were a bit of both.  Just by looking at the map I could tell that the trip would entail a lot of driving and I hoped our poor little Honda would be up for the challenge.  And there weren't a lot of roads where we were going.  Sure once we were out of Albania our Tom Tom was able to map out a route for us but we weren't so sure about it all.  With a three and a half year old any road trip is always an iffy proposition; just how many hours is he willing to be strapped into a car seat before demanding to be set free?  And I knew it would be hot.  Very hot.  After all, the residents of the places on our itinerary flee the area in July and August to escape the heat.  So why were these crazy Americans actually going into the depths of the heat?  For the adventure and to be able to say we did it.  (And we are glad we did).  So here's a recap of the highlights and commentary about the trip.
  • The monasteries of Meteora are amazing and if you ever have a chance to visit, do it.  Yes it was hot but because of the heat it was "off season" for the area so we had much of the place to ourselves.  It was breathtaking to take in the sweeping views from the mountain peaks and with an occasional breeze, the heat wasn't so bad.  And at night I loved sitting on our hotel balcony and looking back up at the looming hills.  I can completely understand why the monks settled here.
  • We didn't love Thessaloniki.  We wanted to but we just couldn't.  With the exception of a few hidden gems and the fabulous view from our hotel room, we found the city to be dirty, graffiti covered, and down trodden.  Venturing outside of Thessaloniki was better and afforded us the opportunity to explore ancient ruins and take in a waterfall or two.  
  • The vast area in between our two stops in Greece was flat, dry, and seemingly endless.  We witnessed firsthand how the depressed economy has effected northern Greece.  The bright spot along this stretch of road was the road itself.  Maybe I have been in Albania too long but I found the road, or divided highway as it was in most places, to be well maintained.  (Greeks love their signage as well.  I quickly lost track of the number of signs we saw warning us of the presence of bears or cows).  The main highway was obviously new and in places, still under construction.  You just don't realize how important the quality road is to a place until you live in a place that doesn't have them!

  • We absolutely loved Bucharest.  This up and coming city felt grungy yet hip.  It appears that the city is slowly awakening from a dark past and being renovated without becoming completely gentrified.  From churches and cafes to public parks and large scale apartment buildings, everything seemed to be under going a slow renovation. (I say slow since our Romanian friends say that they work just isn't being done fast enough).  And Bucharest has plenty of true pedestrian only areas.  I love being able to meander through these areas without the fear of being run down by speeding mopeds.
  • You only have to walk down a Bucharest street or two to witness Romania's Communist past first hand.  During Ceauseascu's reign, entire neighborhoods had been demolished leaving areas devoid of character yet so many of the churches dating to the Byzantine Empire had been left untouched.  Combine this with architectural influences from both western Europe and the Ottoman Empire and Bucharest is nothing if not eclectic.  All of this made for a interesting city where we never knew what we would discover around the corner.  

  • Who knew that Bulgaria is expected to produce 1.4 million tons of sunflowers in 2013 and 2014.  I didn't and it wasn't until we spent hours driving through field after field of sunflowers that I began to understand the extent of Bulgaria's sunflower oil production.  Bulgaria also produces corn and corn oil and we saw our share of these crops as well.  Having driven a large portion of the country my impression of Bulgaria is that of a largely rural and agricultural nation.  These rolling fields, mountains, and deep gorges were beautiful and my favorite part of Bulgaria.
  • Customs and passport control in and out of Bulgaria is tough.  We had our required visas but even (or perhaps) of our diplomatic passports and Albanian license plates border crossings were long and a bit tedious.  Crossing from Greece into Bulgaria resulted in our (and Russian plated cars) being pulled over on the side of the road for close to a full hour as other cars zipped past.  Crossing into Bulgaria from Romania was slightly easier.
  • Signs of Bulgaria's Communist past were readily evident whenever we entered a city or urban area.  Blocky concrete high rises ominously filled the skylines reminding me of how harsh living conditions had been for so many people.  This was particularly evident in the city of Ruse which is located across the Danube River from Romania.  Here kilometer after kilometer of depressing and dilapidated buildings lined the highway reminding me of many of America's public housing projects.  The fact that they are still occupied by hundreds of families reminded me how poverty stricken this part of the world really is.
  • We covered a lot of miles here but spent our time in two Bulgarian cities, the historic city of Veliko Tarnovo and the capitol city of Sofia.  In between were hundreds of miles of narrow but paved roads and unexplained detours.  (Well, maybe they were explained but in Cyrillic only).  Veliko Tarnovo was hot and interesting but not my favorite stop along our journey.  In many respects Sofia felt like a smaller version of Bucharest.  It was both historic and modern.  It may be because we ate better food there, but I just might have liked Sofia better.  
  •  Macedonia produced the biggest surprise of our entire vacation.  Skopje proved to be a small vibrant city filled with a surprisingly high level of buildings and reconstruction going on.  Not only is the city investing in new municipal buildings but the building boom includes a large number of monuments, statues, and fountains.  Our brief Skopje stop was the perfect way to end our trip.  So much so that we are trying to find a time to go back.
We then passed through Kosovo on our way back to Albania.  We've been there before and in many respects the country feels like a slightly more developed version of Albania.  We were greeted by Albanian flags at the Macedonian-Kosovo border where our passports received only the slightest glance by the Albanian speaking customs official.  Crossing into Albania was even less stringent with a mere wave of the hand before we sped off.  But we didn't go too far too fast; a herd of cows was standing in the middle of the divided highway.  Yes, at this point we definitely knew we were back in Albania!  (And unlike Greece, there were no signs warning us beforehand).  
So this was our summer vacation.  It was a far cry from our much more relaxing Scandinavian adventure of last year.  This year we returned home weary and travel worn but so glad we had undertaken this endeavor.  We saw places we had only heard about and experienced a culture that is so unlike what we are used to.  From the Cyrillic language to the local cultures we were pushed outside of our comfort zone but for me, that is what travel is all about.  So if you want clean and pristine, go to northern Europe; if edgy and up and coming is more your style, then come visit the Balkans.  It won't always be easy or comfortable but it will be an adventure.  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Taking In A Statue (Or Two) In Skopje

A city being rebuilt: the
bronze dome of the new
 municipal water
Skopje, Macedonia, a.k.a. FYROM, was the final stop on our Balkan road trip. We pulled into Skopje on day 13 of our journey hot and a bit travel weary but excited about what we would find.  Friends who had lived or spent time in Skopje had told us that it was a wonderful city that was undergoing a grand renewal so we were ready to see this for ourselves.  After all, each of the other Balkan capitols we had visited had pleasantly surprised us so we expected more of the same here.

I had been told that Skopje was a city full of statues but until I saw it for myself, I didn't fully comprehend what this actually meant.  Seeing as Skopje is a city in a former Communist country, I fully expected to see my share of statues portraying stern looking men armed with weapons.  After all, these nationalistic statues had graced every city and town and many of the roadsides we had traveled through over the past two weeks so it would make sense that Skopje would have more of the same.  But what I saw in Skopje was different.  Very different.  Sure they still had their share of Cold War era monuments but new modern looking statues, monuments, and fountains were being built throughout the city at a scale unlike anything I had ever seen before.  Additionally, new municipal buildings, museums, theaters, and hotels were being constructed along the renovated riverfront.  Yes, we found Skopje to be a city under construction and it was all very exciting.

The Stone Bridge at night; a renovated original
Skopje is a city of contrasts. We wandered through the cobblestone streets of the old Turkish bazaar filled with its non-descript cafes, stores selling everything from gowns and precious metals to housewares and tourist trinkets, and abandoned buildings.  We climbed up to the Skopje Kale, or fortress, which dates back to the Ottoman Empire.  The grounds and fortress itself were in turn rebuilt, over grown, and somewhere in between.  In true Balkan form, resident dogs held court over the paths making me look twice before turning each corner.  The original walls had been refortified and from the top we took in the sweeping view of the city below us and the Millennium Cross perched atop the looking Vondo Mountain.  But the most interesting part of our experience in the city was the statues and monuments that appeared on so many street corners and public squares.  Upon returning home I did a little researched and discovered what this public art building craze was all about.

One of 15 equestrian statues

Under the moniker of Skopje 2014:  The New Face of Macedonia, Skopje aims to revamp its image by constructing twenty new public buildings, 15 equestrian statues, and a memorial dedicated to fallen heroes.  The center piece of the project is a grand, 22 meter high bronze statue of Alexander the Great that sits in the city's main square. (A corresponding one of his father Philip of Macedon sits on an opposing square).  During our visit on a very hot August night hundreds of people were in the square taking in the sights.  Children and adults, couples, singles, and teens alike splashed in the fountain as they took in the multi-colored water and light show that accompanied the classical music that was pumped into the square. The whole experience was simultaneously impressive, surreal, and over the top.  It was unlike anything I have ever seen before.  (Many of the other fountains also had light shows with both the lights and the music lasting well into the early morning hours).

Because words can't adequately describe the experience here are a few pictures to give you a better idea of what I am talking about:

Alexander the Great in all his greatness

Close up of the water display

Another magical display- all part of the Alexander the
Great monument

And there were other statues and monuments as well:


and heroes

This fountain (below) located immediately outside of our hotel was perhaps the sweetest of them all.  As series of mother figures flanked its perimeter.  Each mother held a child at a different stage of their childhood.  It was touching and unlike any of the other statues we saw.  And Sidney, of course, was more interested in the water than the touching significance of the figures.

I called this the mother-child fountain; all of the figures
portray mothers with children

Celebrating music
and theater
And then there were the public buildings.  A new municipal water building was being constructed with a shiny bronze dome.  (Who does this these days?).  It would only make sense that a new national theater, which itself celebrates arts and culture, located in a city celebrating public art on such a grand scale, would have its own statues.  Although much smaller in scale than the grand ones flanking the main square, the statues surrounding the still under construction national theater were the first ones we noticed as we made our way to the hotel.  In true new Skopje fashion, the theater building has statues flanking its entry ways and its grand veranda overlooking the river.  These were whimsical and a welcome change from the warriors perched on horseback.

Naturally, any project of this scale is going to have its critics.  People are unhappy with everything from the concept and costs to the architectural designs.  The contracting of public projects is big business all over the globe and as is often the case, accusations of a lack of transparency abound.  One year into the project officials are reporting that to date,  208 million Euro has been spent while critics place the number at a figure closer to between 500 million to one billion Euro.  (Either way, during these fragile economic times, that is a lot of money to spend).  Some claim such a project detracts from the larger issues that are pressing to many Macedonians.  High unemployment rates, potential NATO membership, and the ongoing name controversy that is hindering the country's entry into the European Union are issues that many feel need to be addressed before erecting new monuments.

Being neither Macedonian nor living there I have a different perspective.  As a tourist I was entranced by the spectacle that is the "new" Skopje.  We found the city to be a pleasant place to visit and one we would readily return to.  If the city's goal is to attract foreign tourism and we are any indication, they seem to be succeeding on this front.  As an urban planner I was pleased to see a level of thought and development that I have found lacking in most of the other Balkan countries and cities I have visited.   Having sat on both sides of the public project table I can only imagine the talking, planning, and negotiations that have gone into the implementation of this project to date and the amount of work that has yet to be done.  But having been involved in the implementation of large scale public projects, I am well aware of how much these endeavors cost.  During our short visit I repeatedly found myself wondering how the project was being funded.  Tax dollars?  Private investment?  A combination of both?  During lean economic times I wonder whether this is truly the best use of public dollars.  I do hope that the work is completed before the money and public will dry up.  Too often projects that begin as a good idea never reach fruition leaving a community no better off than they were before they began.  This I have seen throughout the Balkans.  For Skopje, only time will tell.  Regardless of it all, Skopje was a grand way to conclude our Balkan adventure.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Sofia Underground

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Like our stop in Bucharest, Sofia was a very pleasant surprise.  Sofia has been in the news lately because of their ongoing protests against public corruption.  We witnessed several of these daily protests ourselves and while there was always a strong police presence surrounding them, overall they felt very civil.  One of the larger protests we witnessed, complete with flags, drums, and families pushing baby strollers, could have easily been mistaken for a parade.  These protests were nothing like the more riotous ones that have been the hallmark of public angst throughout the rest of Europe.

Snack time in the (underground)
Ancient Complex Serdika
Sofia has kilometer after kilometer of cobblestone streets, old trams and streetcars operating in conjunction with a modern underground metro system, and architecture that rivals that of other European cities.  There were pedestrian zoned areas lined with upscale stores, large fountain filled parks, and this being a former Communist controlled city, the ubiquitous statues.  And yet, Sofia is definitely international; we heard and saw people from around the world and ate some of our best meals of our trip, including a spicy Indian dinner and a night of sushi, here.  Sofia felt simultaneously old yet modern and with its combination of old blending with new, the word I would use to describe this compact capitol city is spunky.  Her people, her politics, and her history all speak to this.  And while there was some magnificent architecture to be seen throughout Sofia, the biggest surprise for me, and my favorite part of the city, was what laid underground.

I had heard about Sofia's notorious "squat shops", basement level shops where patrons bent down and made their snack and drink purchases from the vendor whose head appeared to be poking up out of the sidewalk, so when I saw them, I laughed but I wasn't surprised.  The underground metro stations we visited were clean and modern to a level I haven't seen in awhile but again, while they were nice, these weren't the surprise. What did surprise me was the underground archaeological sites that served as both passageways under the city and historic landmarks.  The Ancient Complex Serdika was one such site.  From the street level, sandwiched between government buildings, a metro station, and a highway, it was so unassuming.  We stumbled upon it when we thought we were entering an underground passage that would allow us to cross a major traffic artery without having to play Frogger.  It was this, complete with a smattering of kiosks selling knick-knacks, cigarettes, and bottled water.  But upon closer examination the area was also ancient ruins on top of which modern Sofia was built.  Intermingled with the modern conveniences mentioned above were the ruins of partial walls, pottery shards, and even a Roman amphitheater.  Who knew all of this was hidden under the city?  (Actually, no one really did until 2004 when construction workers stumbled upon the ruins).  This was just such a neat surprise.

Looking up into church apse from below
But for me, the most impressive underground site, however, was the archaeological museum housed under the Basilica of Santa Sophia.  This namesake church dates back to the 5th Century AD.  From the outside it didn't appear to be nearly as impressive as the neighboring Alexander Nevesky Cathedral or even the other churches and mosques we visited throughout the city.  The inside of the Basilica had the dark wood, stern soot covered murals, and intense smell of incense that I have come to associate with churches from the Byzantine Era.  The church was still active, with the pious outnumbering the tourists.  We thought the Basilica itself was the highlight of the church but we were wrong; when we noticed people disappearing through a staircase in the floor, we decided to follow suit and we surprised by what we found.  Hidden under the church was a complete archeological museum that had been excavated from the city ruins.  In the cool, dimly lit underground we wandered through narrow passageways as we explored one room after another.  Walking into a new room was like exploring a maze since we never knew when we would reach a dead end and have to turn around or when we would be able to continue on our way.  Some rooms were simply a combination of brick and stone ruins; others held tombs, mosaics, and crypts.  Some walls were plain stone while others were ornately painted.  From the street, I never would have guessed that all of this under here.  And this was the type of surprise I loved about Sofia. On a hot summer day, finding underground treasures was just what these weary travelers needed.

An underground chamber
Wall painting

Pieces of a floor mosaic 
Another above ground treasure- the immaculate Russian
Orthodox Church- the interior was under construction
during our visit

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Romanian Holiday: Bucharest

Religious symbols grace every corner
of Bucharest
First just let me say that I loved Bucharest.  Maybe it is because prior to our arrival I didn't have any expectations for this Eastern European capitol city.  We included it on our swing through the Balkans since it just seemed to make sense because we were already in the general area and it is a place that most of our friends haven't been.  Visiting it added to the quirkiness of our summer road trip.  In hindsight, I am so glad we did since Bucharest, while still up and coming, is a pretty amazing city.  In fact, we are looking forward to repeating our Balkan road trip in a few years (but more about that in a future post).

I didn't know much about Bucharest, or Romania for that fact, prior to our trip.  Our house here in Tirana is next door to the Romanian Embassy so I recognized their flag.  I knew that even though they are a part of the European Union, they don't use the Euro as their form of currency.  Romanian friends of ours had told us how wonderful the city was and assured us that we would enjoy our visit.  Growing up, Romania was just another Communist Bloc country.  As an American, you might read about it but you certainly didn't visit.  I vaguely remembered hearing about Romania during the overthrow of the Communist regime during the bloody Romanian Revolution in 1989.  The ouster and subsequent execution of Nicolae Ceauseascu and his wife Elena signified the end of 42 years of Communist rule.  During Ceauseascu's rule, many of the city's historic buildings were razed and replaced with "Socialist realism" style buildings (a.k.a. plain, concrete buildings lacking adornment or much architectural interest).  Prior to Communism, Bucharest was at various times bombed by Allied forces during World War II and occupied by German forces during World War I.  Building and population booms were the hallmark of the late 19th Century with gas lighting, horse drawn trams, and extravagant architecture being introduced.  During this period Bucharest came to be known as a "little Paris".  Historically the Eastern Orthodox Church has had a strong influence over the life of the city.  All of these influences are readily apparent in today's Bucharest.

Bucharest today is a city on a continual rebound.  I could feel both the past and the present while walking through the city's streets.  Our hotel overlooked Piata University and the site of the original 1989 uprising in Bucharest.  (During the protests and subsequent shootings, international journalists had a bird's eye view of the proceedings from the hotel's balconies).  A black cross commemorates the first
The lawn of the National Theater
student who died that December but signs of hope and renewal also abound.  Giant sculptures adorn the grounds of the nearby National Theater.  Renovations and restorations, from both public and private investments seemed to be occurring on every street.  We saw ancient ruins being excavated adjacent to new walkways being built (public investments) across the road from abandoned buildings that were obviously once grand adjacent to those in the midst of renovations.  Numerous churches were also being cleaned and restored.  Dedicated cobblestone pedestrian streets zig zag through much of the city providing for opportunities for fountains, outdoor cafes, and leisurely strolls without the fear of being run over by a speeding vehicle.  Add in the green parks, complete with lakes, playgrounds, and benches for sitting and Bucharest was just a fun city to explore.

And then there were the churches; they were literally everywhere.  I lost track of the number of times we rounded a corner only to come across a small church tucked away between modern buildings.  During the Communist period, when Romania was officially an "atheist state", Ceauseascu's regime used the Church to promote a national identity while the church in turn ignored the existence of hundreds of thousands of Romanian prisoners and focused their efforts on supporting the regime's "social justice" goals.  It is perhaps due to this odd relationship that so many of churches and religious icons still exist today.  And based on the number of black clad priests we saw strolling through the streets, religion still plays an important roles in the lives of ordinary Romanians.  This was also apparent upon entering into any of the numerous churches we visited.  Although small and dark (compared to the grand cathedrals of Western Europe), they were filled with locals praying and seeking solace within the church's hallow walls.  Whereas many churches in Western Europe have felt more like tourist attractions to me, the churches in Bucharest felt like true places of worship.  As a tourist, I felt like an interloper.

Manastirea Antim

The Russian Orthodox Church (under construction)
Detailed mosaics gracing a church vestibule
Bucharest felt international but decidedly un-touristy.  We saw-and heard- people from all over the world on the streets, visiting the churches, and dining in restaurants, yet never had to stand in a line to wait to visit any of the city's landmarks.  (This was a welcome relief after visiting the likes of Rome and Paris).  Even though we were there in the middle of the summer, the city felt alive and full of energy.  Families, couples, and students filled the streets, cafes, and parks.  Their presence made the city feel decidedly fun.

As I said from the onset. Bucharest is a work in progress.  Our Romanian friends complained that the pace of renovations and work is too slow and they would like to see more progress, sooner.  I completely understand this but given the lack of development and progress I've witnessed in other cities, I am impressed by what I saw in Bucharest.  I can only imagine what the city will look like in five or ten years.  This is why we want to go back then to see all of the changes.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Veliko Tarnovo In All Its Balkan (Plum) Glory

Like any good Communist era statue,
this one is soldier is holding a gun
En route from Thessaloniki to Bucharest, we spent a night in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.  This was by no means the half way point between the two cities and the narrow winding roads and unmarked detours (or maybe they were marked in Bulgaria's Cyrillic language making them unrecognizable to us) made the drive feel much longer than it actually was, but we wanted to see as much of the country as we could during our short stay.  And a stop here gave us another small taste of Bulgaria and her long and rich history.

First a brief geography and history lesson:  Veliko Tarnovo is located in an oxbow of the Yantra River in north central Bulgaria.  Today it is an important economic, cultural, educational, and civic center for Northern Bulgaria but the city itself has a long and important history dating back to the Middle Ages.  During the Bzyantine Empire it was the largest Bulgarian stronghold and was home to approximately 15,000 inhabitants.  The city was considered by many to be a "third Rome" because of its cultural influence over the rest of Eastern Europe.  Veliko Tarnovo continued to grow for 200 years until it was seized and the entire Bulgarian Empire destroyed by the conquering Ottoman Empire. After surviving 480 years of Ottoman occupation, in 1877, Veliko Tarnovo was liberated and two years later with the ratification of their first constitution, the Bulgarian Parliament was officially moved to Sofia.  Today, a drive, or walk, through Veliko Tarnovo reveals evidence of all of the chapters of her long history.

Everything we had read and heard told us that this former capitol city would be filled with charming architecture, impressive churches and a fortress whose size would rival all those we had previously visited.  We told ourselves that this would make the long drive well worth it.  After kilometer upon kilometer of rolling farm land filled with sunflowers and corn, Veliko Tarnovo seemed to pop up on the horizon out of no where.  First we encountered the blocky concrete high rises on the outskirts of the city that are the hallmark of all former Communist cities.  They are purely utilitarian and there is absolutely nothing aesthetically pleasing about them.  As we exited the main road and passed run down store fronts and abandoned buildings with little architectural character, I began to have my doubts about this overnight stop.  Was this place all that it was cracked up to be?

Night view from our hotel balcony
The view from our hotel balcony was impressive, and by far the best part of our overnight accommodations.  I know we are in the Balkans but everything about the hotel screamed over the top Balkan. (I have to remember that much of Eastern Europe essentially slept through the 1980s without having the benefit of western cultural influences).  The best word to describe the hotel is "purple".  Or plum to be exact.  We were greeted by a male valet wearing a shiny plum shirt and checked in by a female desk clerk wearing an identical plum outfit.  From the shag wall-to-wall carpeting on the room of our floor to the velour love seat and matching throw pillows and accent blanket on the bed, just about everything was plum.  Even the walls were covered with an ornate plum colored wallpaper that took me back in time fifty or so years.  The lamps, while not plum, were made of a silver reflective plastic that gave the room a misguided retro feel.  I started to think I was smelling over ripe plums but I think it was just the too floral room freshener scent that permeated the entire hotel.  (I was also a bit creeped out by the offer of his and hers full body waxing sessions at the attached spa............).  Yes, we were definitely in the heart of the Balkans.  We reminded ourselves that it was just for one night then quickly escaped outside to the balcony where we took in the impressive view of the fortress below us.

The northern wall of the fortress
Daybreak revealed the quaint city we had been promised.  Sprawl from the current times and recent Communist era past was confined to the outskirts of the city with the traditional city being protected along the river below.  Today, Veliko Tarnovo is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site for a reason.  Red tiled roofs dotted the horizon while traditional Bulgarian houses lined the narrow cobblestone streets of the old city.  As we discovered during our trek into the fortress however, the old city is far from pristine.  Preserved and rehabilitated buildings shared sidewalk space with abandoned and trash filled ones smelling suspiciously like stale urine.  The stench marred the experience but we carried on in the hot sun up the hill and into the fortress itself.

Shaped like a triangle mirroring the curve of the river, the Tsarevets Fortress was originally home to 400 houses and 18 churches built between the 5th and 12th Centuries.  The original fortress walls were crumbling and numerous signs in both Bulgarian and English warned us of the dangers of falling through holes or off of the walls themselves.  (If this was the United States all access to the walls would have been cordoned off in order to prevent even the slightest possibility of someone falling).  Today few of the original structures still exist but it was nice to see that restoration efforts are underway for those that are.  At the top of the hill the well preserved Sarevets Patriach's Chapel was spartan, dark, mildly ominous and smelled strongly of incense.  Middle Age churches certainly weren't places of enlightenment and cheer.  Although the blazing sun was a deterrent, cobblestone paths zigzagged across the green expanses of the fortress providing plenty of opportunities to explore.  During select summer evenings there are multi-colored light shows that illuminate the fortress grounds.  There wasn't one the night of our visit but they are apparently a must see if the opportunity arises.  Perhaps the next time we road trip through Bulgaria we will have the opportunity to check one out.

This puts a whole new meaning on the term "being at the
pointy end of the stick"

Sarevets Patriach's Chapel


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Momma Guilt

We all have it (at least once in a while). Or at least I do.  The feeling that we could have changed what we did or made a different decision in terms of our children.  Call me an insecure parent but I struggle with this uncertainty in regards with many of the decisions I have made in regards to Sidney.  I've felt guilty about each sickness or sadness he has encountered feeling as though I could have done something to prevent or at least temper them.  Bedtimes, diets, even the choice of toys and clothing are opportunities that cause me to wonder if I have made or am making the right decisions.  I still feel guilty over the time Sidney developed strep throat while I was in Germany and he was in the very able care of his nanny back in Tirana.  After all, shouldn't a child have his Mamma around when he is sick?  Pre-school or nanny?  Bucking the trend of those around us we've opted for a full time nanny rather then sending Sidney to a local pre-school. It isn't a money saving measure; in fact it actually costs us more.  Sure Sidney may be missing out on some of the social aspects of attending school with his peers but he has no problem making friends at the local playgrounds, readily jumps in and welcomes new kids to the group, and can count to 100 and narrate his way through life in both English and Albanian.  This reaffirms the decision to have the nanny.  But then there are other, smaller decisions, that keep me up at night second guessing the decisions I have made.

We've been on vacation for the past two weeks road tripping our way through the Balkans.  It hasn't always been easy (this is the Balkans after all) but it has been an adventure.  As is the case whenever we travel, our normal routines were left back in Tirana.  We've all been staying up later than our normal appointed bedtimes, bath nights have been occasionally forgone for the littlest one, and regular meals have been skipped in lieu of ice cream for breakfast (although when the child opts for carrot sticks instead of McDonald's French fries from a Bulgarian drive through it is hard to complain).  Even for this die hard planner, being off schedule has been wonderful and relaxing.  Until it isn't and I find myself second guessing our vacation decisions.

Earlier this week while in Bucharest we joined Romanian friends for dinner.  They are friends from Tirana and were excited to show us around their home city.  As they gave us a guided tour of some of their favorite spots, Sidney enjoyed running along the broad pedestrian friendly sidewalks that line so many of Bucharest's streets.  When we came to a large park, complete with ponds, fountains, playgrounds, and trees he was beyond excited.  (You probably have to live in Tirana or a similar place to appreciate how nice it is to have clean and open green spaces free of stray dogs, pan handlers, and speeding motor scooters).  Sidney also loves leaves and picked up several large green leaves and their accompanying seed pods as we played on the playground.  After the playground we went onto dinner where I sanitized Sidney's grimy hands with my ever present wet wipes.   It was late when we returned to our hotels and as such, we skipped Sidney's evening bath.  At this point I didn't give his park experience another thought.  Until the next morning.......
Ginkgo- it looks so innocent

Sidney awoke the next morning with a few bumps on his cheek.  He wasn't scratching them and wasn't complaining about their presence but as I looked closer I realized that these bumps were multiplying in front of my eyes and were in fact covering both of his lower legs, his lower arms and his entire face.  I started to panic and had visions of needing to find a Romanian doctor (on a Sunday no less).  Sidney is fully vaccinated for all of the usual childhood bumpy pox like diseases but I wondered about what he could have  potentially been exposed to on the playground.  (Yes, my imagination was running wild but I worry about his exposure to preventable childhood diseases a lot since we live in a region where vaccines are not commonplace).  Glenn took one look at him and said that the rash looked like a poison ivy.  I wasn't so sure but Sidney's lack a fever and his showing zero interest in the bumps tempered my fears ever so slightly.  I mean, I know what poison ivy leaves look like and I was certain he hadn't been playing in any patches.  For better or worse I decided to research poison ivy on WebMD.  Yes, the rash did resemble poison ivy, but as I continued reading I discovered that Ginkgo Biloba, a large green tree with known medicinal powers, has seeds whose fleshy outer coating produces chemicals that can cause blister like rashes on people with skin sensitivities to these chemicals.  These rashes are virtually identical to poison ivy.  Perhaps I had an answer.

The previous evening we had stopped to stand in the shade of a large Ginkgo Biloba tree and Sidney had proceeded to pick up its leaves and seeds while we discussed the tree and its medicinal purposes.  The cause of the rash was all beginning to make sense.  I didn't know that Sidney had an allergic reaction to Ginkgo (after all, why would I?) but it did make sense given the fact that both Glenn and I have strong allergic reactions to poison ivy and other skin irritants.  Knowing that his rash was neither life threatening nor contagious we visited a pharmacy where the pharmacist took one look at Sidney and promptly supplied us with a  clear gel to put on his rash.  Problem averted.  But then the Mamma guilt set in.

I started kicking myself for allowing Sidney to scramble all over the ground collecting leaves and such the previous evening.  If I was better schooled on toxic plants I would have known about the not so nice side effects of Gingko.  I know he is a little boy and that is what boys want to do but I felt that if I had given him more attention instead of talking to our friends he wouldn't have had the opportunity to expose himself to so many allergens.  If I had only insisted on a bath the night before instead of agreeing to wait until the next day we could have washed those chemicals right off of his body and perhaps prevented, or at least halted their spread.  Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda.  If only; if only; if only.................

Oddly enough, aside from a random comment or two about the bumps and wanting his skin to be smooth, Sidney seems to be oblivious to this whole experience.  He isn't itching and to help prevent the rude stares he's been receiving from strangers, he's been happily wearing his favorite pants.  If people have been making comments they've been lost on me because of the language barrier which is a good thing because the looks induce enough guilt without my hearing the words.  (I've also realized just how much cross contamination can come from a child's hands; this rash is everywhere and in places I know he didn't directly put leaves).  And the rash is disappearing already.  Yesterday his skin looked better than the day before and this afternoon he looks better than he was just this morning. Perhaps the rash will have all but disappeared by the time we return to Tirana.  I can only imagine the scorn and scolding I would get from his nanny if she saw what I allowed to happen to her Sidney.  That, would induce a whole new level of guilt.

We're still on vacation and continuing to skip meals while eating lots of ice cream.  We have, however, re-instituted baths before bed each night.  I know they are unlikely to prevent the next childhood hiccup that comes our way but if Sidney is clean, that is one less thing for me to feel guilty about.  Because as a mother, I already have enough guilt.