Monday, September 30, 2013

The Salt Mines Of Wieliczka

"Cauliflower" salt formations
One of the coolest things I've done in a long time is visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines.  Located just a few miles outside of Krakow, Poland these ancient mines date back to the 13th Century and produced salt continuously until 2007.  The mines were used by the occupying German forces as ad-hoc military facilities during World War II and the site was given a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1978.  The mines run to a depth of 1,073 feet deep and encompass a labyrinth totaling 178 miles.  Because these mines are so impressive (and famous) they are visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year.  I can only imagine how crowded they must be during peak tourism season.

Fortunately the day of our visit was after the summer rush so while busy, the crowds were quite manageable.  And of course, since the tours are offered so frequently, the knowledgeable guides have the whole routine down to a science.  We had been warned that because we would be doing a lot of walking and the mines are underground, the temperatures would be quite cool so we should wear comfortable shoes and dress warmly.  While cool, the temperatures were quite comfortable but everyone was right about the walking.  We descended a total of 800 steps down into the salty ground.  We encountered the first 350 of those immediately upon beginning our tour when our group twisted and turned our way down a series of 57 separate sets of stairs and platforms into the ground below.  These steps weren't just any steps either; they were incredibly steep.  It felt like a race into the center of the earth as we followed our guide into the cool unknown.  And the stairs were only a part of the adventure.  Our guide claimed that the total distance we would cover was just under 2 kilometers but it felt like so much more.

What we found at the first "level" was impressive.  We encountered tunnel after salt encrusted tunnel meandering through the dimly lit underground.  This is not a place for the claustrophobic as the ceilings were low and some passageways tight.  Our guide warned us to stay together and I could see how one could easily get lost if they didn't keep up since each tunnel looked much like the last one.  The tunnels were impressive and I could only imagine how dark and scary they must have been to the miners who toiled away in them.  These tunnels would periodically open into caverns of various sizes ranging from small nooks to large rooms with soaring ceilings.  Scenes portraying mining life, carved of salt of course, filled many of caverns.  From whimsical gnomes to hardworking miners and statues of prominent Poles, they were all found in this underground world.  We also encountered several underground streams and ponds whose water was a whopping 35% salinity.  Now that is salty!  I quickly came to realize that all salt is not the same.  We saw white crystals called "cauliflower" salt due to their resemblance to the garden vegetable and we saw shiny and smooth black salt walls.  Other salt was the color of concrete while some of the floors were made of pink toned compressed salt tiles.  Running my hand along a tunnel wall left my fingers a tonge tingling salty.  It was all so surreal.

But pictures say it best.  Who knew that all of this is located right underneath a bustling Polish community?

Just a small portion of the underground tunnels

Recreation of a wedding proposal, cast in salt of course

35% saline; now that's salty!
And because Poland is a predominantly Catholic country, religion plays an active role in most aspects of community life.  Throughout the mines small shrines have been established on the sites where miners lost their lives.  (Mining has always been a dangerous profession so you can only imagine how many of these shrines exist).  The maze of mine shafts also host several large scale chapels including the cavernous Holy Cross Chapel which has high ceilings, rock salt- crystal chandlers, intricate salt carvings, and because Pope John Paul II was "their pope" a life sized statue paying homage to the late pontiff.  These ornate chapels, carved of salt of course, are some of the most beautiful religious sites I have ever seen.  And they are all located underground!

Holy Cross Chapel

The Polish Pope

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Kocham Krakow

A local character
I really enjoyed my time in Warsaw but I absolutely loved Krakow.  Whereas Warsaw had a more modern, edgy feel Krakow immediately made me think of all of the stereotypes about "old Europe".  (And this isn't a bad thing; in fact, I loved it).  We were still in Poland, just 300 kilometers from Warsaw but just about everything felt different in Krakow.  In Warsaw we stayed in a uber modern high rise hotel; our hotel in Krakow was quirky old, had thick walls, tall windows, and little heat and oozed a charm that immediately made me feel at home.

Krakow's Old Town is ringed by green space with grassy areas and old trees sharing space with pedestrians.  The crisp autumn air made it especially inviting to walk around the oldest part of the city.  And the Old Town itself is centered around the impressive main market square was truly old whereas Warsaw's, having been decimated during World War II, was painstakingly rebuilt. Flower vendors, horse drawn carriages, and musicians shared the square with the hundreds of pigeons and the hoards of tourists that I have come to expect when visiting European cities.  Restaurants and cafes filled the perimeter of the square with their outdoor tables, complete with heaters and blankets to ward off the fall chill, inviting people to stop and sit.  And we did, on numerous occasions, enjoying traditional Polish foods and warming beverages as we people watched.  People watching and absorbing the atmosphere is always my favorite part of any vacation and Krakow proved to be no exception.  There was just so much to see here that it made it difficult to leave the heart of Old Town but when we did, we were further rewarded for our efforts.

The main square at night

And a bird's eye view 
Off of the main square but still in the Old Town, we explored the narrow cobblestone roads that twisted their way between stately stone buildings that housed shops, hotels, restaurants, and residences.  (Old cities like this are organically "mixed use").  A winding alley might empty us into a vast square anchored by a stately church or one filled with fountains, pop up vendors and more pigeons.  Narrow doorways often lead into hidden courtyards that proved to be my favorite parts of the city since you never knew what you would find around the corner.  Here there might be small museums and historic sites or shops and restaurants that most tourists likely never see.  At the far edge of the Old Town was the Wawel Castle, an impressive fortress like compound sitting high on the hill above the city.  Getting our exercise, we climbed our way up the steep wooden stairs in the belfry of the cathedral where we were able to look down upon the numerous bells.  Unlike other parts of Europe where great structures are made out of marble and stone, massive wood timbers serve as the backbones of so many of Poland's old buildings.

The grounds of the Wawel Castle

And then there were all of the other things that makes Krakow so special.  From the street musicians, traditional crafts, and of course the food, I loved it all.  Our best discovery by far was a street festival filled with traditional foods and crafts.  The pierogi, kapusta and kielbasa we ate washed down with Zywiec beer reminded me of my grandmother's cooking.  Add in the polka music that caused feet to automatically start tapping and it felt as though we were in the midst of a Polish version of Oktober-fest.  Although this was my first trip to Poland so many of the sounds and smells were flashbacks to my childhood.  I felt like I was home.

Local pottery- famous the world over

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Art of Wycinanki

Wycinanki is the art of Polish paper cutting.  Dating back to the  mid 1800s, this form of folk art is thought to have originated with shepherds who cut ornate designs out of pieces of bark.  Over time the art evolved into a craft performed mostly by women who used paper to create decorative arts for their homes and churches. Designs vary by region and often reflect natural themes.  These designs can be simple or ornate and often include animals, birds, and flowers, all ordinary sights in every day life.  This artwork has transformed from folk lore into something trendy with Wycinanki inspired designs showing up on handbags, wall hangings, and fashion runways around the world.  Today this folk art is thoroughly modern.  Fancy and colorful papers are just as apt to be used are the basic black or white sheets of years gone by and while shepherds used sheep sheers to cut their designs, modern artists use small pairs of scissors.  Some things definitely have changed but the ideas remain the same.

I was lucky enough to be able to participate in a paper cutting workshop while in Warsaw. The workshop was facilitated by Susan Throckmorton, a Mount Holyoke alumnae and Warsaw resident who is a member of the American Guild of Paper Cutters.  Susan's work (examples are shown above and below) is truly impressive.  From black and white designs to multicolored birds and medallions, the intricate details are incredible.  It amazes me that with a few (or several) snips of the scissors, amazing artwork appears.

Demonstration of a finished
black & white design
Our group was shown examples of the finished product and provided with pointers on how to begin before actually beginning.  The concept may appear to be simple enough but such details as the way the scissors are pointing--always towards you-- and the importance of moving the paper rather than the scissors themselves, makes all the difference in the finished product.  We were encouraged to sketch out our designs before we took scissors to paper and most importantly, since the designs are symmetrical, make sure we cut on the right side of our folded paper.

Birds- a common theme
We were tasked with making a simple tree that we could elaborate upon to make as fancy or as simple as we chose.  Susan's were tiny with minute details but ours were larger in scale making the process significantly "easier".  (Or so we were told).  Regardless of how fancy we were going to go, we all started with a basic "stem" feature with birds, a traditional Polish symbol, accenting the base. From there the possibilities were endless.  We could go ornate with lots of intricate details or we could go simple.  As a student I struggled with geometry, symmetry, and have always struggled to visualize how things look so this project proved to be a challenge. While others in my class happily went about drawing and cutting, for the life of me I just couldn't visualize what each pencil marking and snip of the scissors would produce.  I was already impressed by Susan's skills but my attempt at my own piece of paper art only strengthened my admiration.  Paper cutting is hard work!

A collection of smaller designs

A black and white forest scene

Now I have never been what I consider to be artistic, but I entered this workshop with the naive idea that I could produce something impressive.  Perhaps it was the "type A" in me but I thought this was possible.  But this is what I ended up with:

And my first attempt; it is basic but
symmetrical so I can't complain

It wasn't nearly as pretty as I had envisioned but I didn't cut through the stem the way some other people did and my birds, those tricky symbols that either make or break the finished product, while not ornate, were symmetrical.  It wasn't good but it wasn't bad.  True to form, however, I'm thinking about how I can improve on this with my next project.  I've even bought the correct paper and scissors to make it happen.  Stay tuned!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Warsaw Re-Rising

Old Town Square today
I always knew Poland, and Warsaw in particular, had been hard hit during World War II. What I didn't realize was just how bad it was; 85% of the city was destroyed by the Nazis--first by bombing then by burning what little remained-- and 6 million Poles, 21.4% of Poland's population, were killed between 1939 and 1945.  Yes, these numbers are real and completely horrifying.  I heard these chilling facts during a walking tour of Warsaw's Old Town and I am still shaken by them.  The realization of what these statistics actually meant sunk in as I stood under bullet riddled overhangs and in front of walls pock marked by executioner's bullets.  Solemnly our guide informed us that many of these walls were the last places Warsaw residents stood before they fell victim to the Nazi's mass executions.  And ironically, these walls are the few remaining remnants of the original Warsaw that weren't burned or destroyed.  Even as I listened to stories of the horror and saw pictures of what a city that is 85% destroyed looks like, I still had a hard time wrapping my mind around all of it.  Honestly, words and even pictures, can't quite describe it all. ***  Warsaw's destruction and subsequent occupation by Stalin has haunted the city yet has made it what it is today. The cost, human, monitory, and cultural, of the War was so great that even today, close to 70 years after the last battle, Warsaw is still recovering.  And that brings us to today's Warsaw.

So how does a city that was essentially completely destroyed recover?  In Warsaw's case, it was done brick by brick.  Seriously.  After the War surviving residents returned to their city determined to rebuild what was left of the place they once called home.  The Communist influence of the Cold War saw concrete buildings being erected to address the dire shortage of of housing but before that, in the area where Warsaw's Old Town once stood, a new "Old Town" was rebuilt.  Over the course of five years, bricks were brought in from other parts of the country and ever so slowly the Old Town returned to its former glory.  Brick by brick.  No detail was too small as marketplaces, churches, and palaces were rebuilt in the same design as the ones that had been destroyed.  It took time and some details took decades to complete but it was (and is still being) built.  Ornate architectural details and even original colors and patterns were carefully replicated.  Although it wasn't without controversy since the Old Town was in fact new, in 1980 Warsaw's reconstructed Old Town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site and today is a proud symbol of Warsaw's rebirth.

A local musician
But the reconstruction of Warsaw has been an ongoing endeavor that is not complete and continues today. Warsavians and return visitors alike spoke to me about the gradual changes that are taking place throughout the city.  A common phrase I heard from several people was that Warsaw is changing and moving forward so something that is here today might not be here a year from now.  I heard this in reference to the bullet riddled facade of old apartment buildings, cobblestone alleyways, and a city square that was an active construction site.  At the recently opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews, built on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto,  a repeated refrain was that we needed to return in a year to see how the museum develops.  As grand exhibit spaces sat unoccupied, no one seemed too sure as to what the actual exhibits paying homage to Warsaw's Jewish population would be. (The museum actually opened with no permanent exhibits and six months later this was still the case).  To me, it feels as though there is a grand vision for things but the details and the road map of how to achieve them are missing.  Or perhaps there is the fear of not getting it "right".  But then again, these things do take time.....

While the city feels vibrant, modern, and moving forward--glass sky scrapers dominate much of the skyline-- there is a feeling of sadness about Warsaw that I just could not shake.  Maybe it is because I've learned such horrifying details about her past or that the past is really a part of Warsaw's moving forward.  Regardless of its cause, it doesn't appear that Warsaw is hiding or ashamed of her history.  This is evidenced by even the darkest parts of Warsaw's history being on display in the form of picture filled outdoor museums for all visitors to see.  It is as if Warsaw is proudly showing off how far they have come in their reconstruction.  And yes, while I know that the "old" parts of the city really aren't old in the true European sense of the word, at least on the surface they look like they have been there for centuries.  And this ongoing reconstruction of the city is just the latest chapter in her history.  Perhaps I do need to follow the advice of the locals and return in a year to see what has transpired.  It could be exactly the same or it could be totally different.

*** For a brief but thought provoking look at Warsaw's destruction and subsequent reconstruction, check out Mark Krawczynski's film Out of the Ashes:  The Reconstruction of Warsaw's Old Town After World War II.

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: The Destruction Of Warsaw

A walk through Warsaw's history- today

The Warsaw-Vienna Railway Station - 1939
Powwow session for the Germany army; the diplomatic corps
left Warsaw around this time - 1939

German soldiers talking with Polish police officers - 1939

The winner's parade with Hitler observing - 1939

Map depicting sites destroyed by Soviet air raids - 1941

Outline of the Warsaw Ghetto area- 98% of the 380,000 Jews
in the Ghetto were exterminated by May 1943

 Ariel showing the destruction of the city - 1944

A city in ruins 1944

Friday, September 20, 2013

Returning To The Motherland

This weekend I am fortunate to have the opportunity to be in Warsaw, Poland attending my Alma Mater's bi-annual European symposium.  I attended my first symposium in Torino, Italy two years ago and loved it.  From the moment it was announced that this year's get together would be in Warsaw, I knew I was going to be there.  It is difficult to describe the intellectual stimulation I experience by being in the presence of so many smart and worldly women.  (In fact, I feel this way any time I attend anything that is related to Mount Holyoke).   Conversations are always lively, critical, and eye opening.  Even after all these years a part of me feels intimidated in the presence of these women and I still sometimes wonder whether my admission letter was a mistake.  As was the case with the previous symposium, the attendees tend to be older than me but age really doesn't matter since the Mount Holyoke sisterhood transcends age and generation.  It also gives me a peak into what I hope my future holds for me.  I am simply in awe of these women who are twenty, thirty, even forty years older than I am yet have the energy to travel all over the globe while having the desire to continue learning about the world around them. I can only hope I am half as energetic and worldly when I am their age.

And then there is the fact that this year's symposium is in Warsaw.  Poland is the country of my father's parents and my earliest memories involve my grandmother gossiping in Polish with her siblings, speaking fondly of the old Polish neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts (her parents immigrated to America shortly before her birth), and of course the delicious Polish food she would laboriously cook.  As a typical second generation immigrant my father eschewed his cultural heritage and thus, during my younger years I did the same.   Growing up in a solidly "American" community where it seemed as though every one's families had lived there for generations, I often felt like the odd person out with my ethnic sounding name and lack of local roots.  It college it was different and it was there that I started thinking about my own history.  (Again, thank you Mount Holyoke).  As I've grown older I've become increasingly intrigued about the land my ancestors called home and had been wanting to visit for some time.  And this weekend my wish became a reality.

So in many respects, this weekend is a dream come true.  I've been sharing in interesting conversations with worldly women, swapping college memories that transcend class years, admitting that despite my very Polish name I don't speak a word of the language, and yes, explaining what the heck I am doing living in Albania.  I've also been eating real Polish pierogi, wandering the streets of Warsaw's Old Town, and thinking about my own family's story.  I'm ashamed to admit that I don't know as much about it as I should but I'm now determined to do something about that.  And while that wasn't the point of this Mount Holyoke symposium, just being in the presence of all my fellow alumnae has inspired me to do some research and to expand my own horizons by learning a little more about my family story.  Thank you Mount Holyoke; the education you gave me just keeps on giving.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Traffic Jam

Today is the single day of the year that I've learned to dread during my past three Septembers here in Albania.  The third Monday of the month means the start of the Albanian school year for both public primary and secondary schools and as well as the public universities.  After the first day of school students will get themselves their via bus or walking but on this first day, everyone, regardless of age or their physical distance from school, seems to be chauffeured their in private vehicles.  (Hence the traffic jam).  I know I get spoiled during August when everyone flees the city for the beach and the streets are all but deserted regardless of the time of day.  And then, seemingly overnight, everyone has returned to the streets of Tirana causing the inevitable congestion that turns our less than five minute commute from our house to the Embassy into thirty minutes of sheer hell and frustration.  And this year, despite knowing what was coming, was the worst one yet.
It was raining when I woke up this morning.  Dark clouds loomed over the city and rain was coming down in buckets.  Traffic is always bad when it is raining.  In addition to the weather problems, this year we have active road construction going on between our house and the Embassy.  On the best of days this often causes traffic to bottleneck and move at a snail's pace.  I should have suspected how bad the traffic was when our normally punctual nanny (she actually always arrives early) arrived a few minutes late saying that the traffic was bad.  I had seen the line slowly snaking down the road when I had peeked out the window earlier but I had assumed that it was just a momentary blip.  Oh how I wish that was the case.  As we pulled out onto the main road I immediately saw how bad it really was.  Traffic simply wasn't moving in either direction. 
Actually, I take that back.  Traffic was flowing down the hill in the far left lane that was under construction. Yes, furgons and Mercedes were dodging the construction equipment that despite the heavy rain, was trying to make progress on the new road.  Slowly, ever so slowly we moved down the hill and after some time we saw a bus heading up the road towards us.  But then it had to stop since it was met head on with yet another car that had decided to bypass our long line of traffic and zip down the other lane.  Perhaps the driver thought he was more important than the rest of us but for whatever reason he decided that he wasn't going to sit at a standstill in the long line of cars.  Unfortunately, this is an all too common occurrence in Tirana and only adds to the traffic problems.  Despite his numerous attempts, no one was willing to let him squeeze into the line ahead of them.  Usually someone caves which only perpetuates the bad behavior.  But with the bus unable to move forward, traffic only continued to idle.  Finally we saw a police officer trudging down the hill with an umbrella. Naively I thought that he might be on his way to give the illegal driver a ticket. But because this is Albania, that wasn't the case. Instead the officer ordered a car to create a break for the wrong doer and allowed him into the cue.  And yes folks, this is partially why we have so many traffic problems.
But the commute only got worse since we weren't quite half way to the Embassy at this point.  Remember all of the cars that I had said were driving through the active construction zone?  Well, half of them were realizing they shouldn't go any further and were trying to turn around and head back up the hill.  The other half were trying to squeeze across two oncoming lanes of traffic (that really should have only been one lane) to merge into the line heading down the hill. And this inevitably caused more problems.  At one intersection there were cars trying to simultaneously turn right and left which resulted in no one being able to move in any direction. We were so distracted by this mess, with yet another police officer haphazardly standing in the middle of it all, that we almost missed the ten or so people who spontaneously jumped out of their vehicles and ran to what appeared to be a stalled car. But it wasn't a stalled car; rather the car had driven into an open man hole and its tire was now stuck.  The group of men lifted the car out of the hole before returning to their own vehicles.  And then traffic resumed creeping along as though nothing out of the (Albanian) ordinary had happened.
And that is the strange thing; vehicle congestion, road hazards that would be unimaginable in the western world, and a blatant disregard for traffic laws coupled with an inability by the police to enforce them are every day occurrences in Albania.  It is not unusual to see vehicles driving in the wrong direction, running red lights, turing left from the right lane and vice versa or speeding by the hapless police officers who attempt to flag them down.  Some days, like today, are simply worse than others.  Hopefully tomorrow will be better.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Lovin' It (Or Not)

"So tell me you love it there."  This is what I was recently asked by the spouse of the Naval Officer considering Glenn's position at this post.  (A.K.A. a future DATT spouse).  I know I shouldn't have been, but I was caught off guard by the request since usually the question is more subtle.  Usually the questions are along the lines of do I like the city or tell me about what a typical day is like.  This was much more upfront.  I hesitated before answering, contemplating what I should say.  It would be a lie to say that I love Albania.  While I like many things about the country, there are just as many things that frustrate me beyond belief.  Thus, I don't love it.  Most days I do like it--some days a lot even-- but on other days I do absolutely hate it.  Am I short changing the country by telling someone who has never been here that I don't love it?

It has taken me many years to realize and accept it, but it is OK to not love where you are.  And yes, it is even OK to hate where you are.  This doesn't make you a bad person.  Sometimes I get the feeling that admitting you aren't completely enamored with the place you currently live makes you an outcast (or as someone once told me, depressed).  At least that is how I often feel here in Albania.  Some people look at me like there is something wrong with me because they love Albania, or at least profess to loving it, so much and I don't. Too many people, especially non-Albanians, seem to take the criticism personally.  Yes, it is my personal opinion of the place but others are entitled to their own personal opinions as well.  We didn't point at a map one day and say we wanted to move to Albania.  The U.S. Navy asked us if we were willing to come here and after a bit of research, we agreed.  We've enjoyed the past two years and and we have been frustrated by the place at times but those are our personal feelings.  I have never expressed likes or dislikes on behalf of anyone other than myself.  And because we are all individuals with different likes and dislikes what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for another.  As adults we need to recognize and respect this.

Perhaps it is because I have traveled and lived in many places that I now have an understanding of what I personally like and don't like in a place I call "home".  Although they are incredibly important factors, it is more than the house or the neighborhood you live in.  The people around us, the opportunities that exist both locally and regionally, professionally and personally, and the daily living conditions of both ex-pats and natives alike all effect our quality of life and thus our own happiness.  We may live in a nice house by Albanian standards but it is hard to see Roma beggers on the streets and packs of feral dogs on the corner when we are out and about.  At the same time we regularly drive by cars that cost more than a year's salary for our household.  When our house is the only one in the neighborhood with electricity, thanks to our super sized generator, I feel for our neighbors who are going with out lights or heat.  The contrasts between the "haves" and the "have nots" here is really amazing and equally hard to accept.  

After pausing, I answered the question truthfully.  There are things I really like about the country and things I can't stand but in the end I have absolutely no regrets about our time in Albania.  Sure, it hasn't always been easy but show me someplace that truly is problem free.  While some of our time here has been really difficult for our family, we've also had opportunities to do and see things that we would never have otherwise experienced.  Our son has flourished here (and achieved a level of Albanian language proficiency that I can only dream about), we've traveled throughout Albania, Europe and back, and we have made life long Albanian and international friends.  And that I can't regret.  So no, I'm not loving it here but I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Monday, September 9, 2013

Tirana By Foot

Busts--and these are the
"friendly" looking ones
I rarely walk in Tirana.  Between the lack of consistent sidewalks and safe infrastructure, the traffic that is just as apt to park and drive on the broken sidewalks as they are to drive on the streets, and the complete disregard for pedestrian safety, (ironically) driving is just a safer option.  That said, when I do drive I am so busy being on the lookout for the a fore mentioned drivers that I usually miss the sights.  I've heard of most of the major sites and have even directed others to them but have never visited most of them myself.  This past weekend, however, I got out and walked and saw a whole new side of the city that I had been missing.

At its heart, Tirana is a former Communist city and that is readily evident where ever you turn.  From the broad main boulevard that runs between the city's two main squares to the vast squares themselves, you can see remnants of the past.  One square, named after the national hero is lush and green and lined with meticulously maintained ministry buildings, museums, and that national opera house.  The other square is a neglected concrete jungle where traffic speeds around parked cars and meandering pedestrians.  Ironically, it is this square that is named for Mother Teresa, who is perhaps the most internationally recognized Albanian in history.  A small and appropriately humble statue of the nun sits in the back corner of the square.  I had always heard that it was there but until I got out and walked I had never actually seen her.  The bronze statue itself was nice but the area immediately surrounding it was dirty, neglected, and covered with glass shards.  It did little to pay homage to her greatness.  And speaking of statues, like all good Communist countries, both current and former, statues are everywhere.  Some are prominent while others are discretely tucked away but all seem to have the same rigid bodies and stern unsmiling faces.

A view from one end of
the boulevard
Beyond the statues, Tirana has other must see landmarks that are best appreciated on foot.  The iconic pyramid, once a grand display of architecture honoring the country's late dictator and now a decrepit and graffiti covered eyesore, speaks to both Albania's past and present.  Tirana's newest memorial pays homage to the country's (recent) dark Communist past in both a whimsical and serious way.  Churches and mosques sit side by side and demonstrate Albania's long history of religious tolerance.  The front facade of the museum of national history boasts a large tiled mosaic depicting Albanian history from ancient to modern times.  Driving by while dodging traffic just doesn't do it justice; it takes standing in front of the building to really appreciate all of the details.

And then there is the every day Tirana.  Walking along the bustling Saturday morning sidewalks I saw shops and cafes I never knew existed--or had only heard about but didn't know where they were located. Some were fancy and others were little more than holes in the wall.  People of all ages were out and about; men both young and old lounged at sidewalk tables while clusters of old women clutching plastic shopping bags hobbled down the sidewalk.  Roma pan handlers shared sidewalk space with young couples pushing pimped out baby strollers which made walking on the narrow and uneven sidewalks even more difficult.  (There are very few curb cuts on any Albanian sidewalks so easy access for all but the most mobile is non-existent).  Street vendors selling everything from grilled corn and fresh flowers to cell phones, used shoes,  and paperback books added to the hustle and bustle.

But all of this made Tirana feel real.  All too often it is easy to not experience only one side of a city.
As a visitor to a city you might see the polished tourist attractions but how often do see how people really live?  I know that when we travel to new places we try to get out of the expected areas and see what the communities are really like.  And after two years, we finally did this right in our (temporary) home.  We saw the sights, both good and bad, the historic and the modern; we got caught up in organized tours and local crowds, and saw the Tirana as it really is.  We really should have done this sooner but I'm glad we finally did it.  In our next city I won't wait as long to do it.

Discovering a part of Albania's recent past

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Tick-Tock Tick-Tock

Tick tock, tick tock goes our countdown clock.

Where has the time gone?  The summer flew by in a flurry of heat, work, and travel and now it is September, the month of transitions, changes, and new beginnings. This is our third September in Albania but this year is different since it is our last.  With just under five months until we move onto our next adventure I know this fall will also fly by.

The first six months of this year dragged.  We were busy, even busier than usual as we worked, traveled, and most importantly, found out where we would be heading to next.  Belgium!  It was unexpected yet welcomed and gave us a lot to think about.  This knowledge in itself should have made the time fly by but it didn't.  January crept into February then March seemed endless.  Despite the warmer temperatures of April and May it rained non-stop (a preview of our future perhaps?) so these months were just as bad.  It felt as though we were going no where fast and the fall felt a lifetime away.  And then June arrived.  She sped by in a flash as did July and August and suddenly I find it being September.

Fall is always busy.  After the long lazy days of summer the pace of life picks up.  Days are shorter but seemingly filled with more activities.  Here in Europe, where August is the official month of vacations and many stores and restaurants simply shutter their doors for weeks on end, people return to their jobs in September ready to get back to work.  I feel the pace picking up all around me.  People seem more focused at work and with the start of the schools, traffic has increased.  The fall months are also filled with both American and Albanian holidays meaning short but intense work weeks and long weekends filled with endless opportunities for exploring (or working or de-cluttering....the list could go on).  And all too soon the big holidays- Thanksgiving and Christmas- will be here with their usual madness and this will be followed shortly by the New Year.

And with the New Year we will be leaving Albania.  So all this means I have a whole lot to do between now and then.  I must be organized, efficient, and proactive.  There are preparations to be made and an all too full house to be purged and packed out.  And then there are the farewells to be had.  Throw in a visit from the grandparents and a final trip or two to complete our Albanian bucket list and there won't be a moment to spare.  Somehow I seriously doubt that these final months of the year will drag the way the first few did.  Time is sure to fly and all of a sudden I'm feeling that I have too much to do and not enough time to do it.  I'm now living life on fast forward.

And not that I'm counting or anything, but we have 140 days until we depart.  And a whole lot to do between now and then.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: Scenes Of Croatia

Who needs a lot of words when pictures say so much?

The newest member of the EU family

An iconic  church

Many signs yet no sightings

Classic Mediterranean red tiled roofs

Church bells

Viewed from the sea

And viewed from the land

A pre-dawn alley

Greeting the day before the tourists descend

Drying laundry

The harbor at sunset