Thursday, October 31, 2013


Today is Halloween.  Also known as All Hallow's Eve, there is controversy as to the true history of this day.  Some say it is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals while others say it has always been a Christian celebration and yet others trace its origins to pagan roots.  Regardless of Halloween's origins, today much of the world celebrates by dressing in costumes, attending parties, and going door to door asking for either tricks or treats.  For many, it is a time honored childhood tradition.

Now, I'm probably in the minority here when I say that Halloween is my least favorite 'holiday'.  I don't dislike it on moral or religious grounds the way some people do; its just a personal preference.  No matter how much I try, I just can't get into the decorating, dressing up, and doling out of candy.   I suppose I can understand how most children get into it but I'm completely flummoxed by adults who feel the urge to dress up and run around like children.  And I even felt this way even as a child.  Maybe it was living in a rural area as a child where going door to door asking for treats was virtually impossible.  Lacking this opportunity, we used to gather at local grange halls (the rural precursor to community centers) for ghost and pumpkin themed parties.  My mother would dress my brother and I into our homemade costumes, pile on the heavy outer layers to protect us from the New England chill, and off we would go.  And I hated it.  Strange child that I was, I was most relieved when Halloween of fifth grade found me inflicted with a case of chicken pox (again, this was back in the days before the vaccine was readily available).  Because I was contagious I was off the hook for Halloween that year.  Finally I reached the point where I could forgo trick or treating all together without feeling like the odd ball amongst my friends.

In college I attended a costumed party or two and rolled into adulthood essentially avoiding the 'holiday.'  I seemed to luck out and live in one neighborhood after another where children were sparse and trick or treaters even more so.  I will admit that there was more than one October 31st where I sat at home with the lights out hoping that no one would ring the doorbell.  Sidney's first Halloween found us living on a military base where children outnumbered adults three to one.  Trying to get into the spirit of things we bought what I thought was a lot of candy, dressed Sidney up like a little bat, and dutifully handed out candy.  It lasted a total of 15 minutes since we were immediately overrun but children and teens, some costumed and some not. (I'm sorry, dressing like a teenager when you are one does not constitute a costume in my book).  When the candy ran out we turned off our light and continued with our normal evening routine.  And I breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn't have to deal with it again for another 364 days.

As Sidney gets older it is getting harder and harder to avoid Halloween (although I imagine it is easier to avoid here in Albania than it is in other parts of the world).  As his friends get excited about dressing up and going door to door I don't want him to feel left out of the festivities solely because of my dislike of the proceedings.  And besides, Glenn enjoys it all.  So this year, Glenn took Sidney to the store to pick out his costume and tomorrow Glenn will take our little pirate to the Embassy's Halloween party (which ironically, due to my job, I am charged with planning).  I haven't decorated our home but I'm making sure that the Embassy ready to go.

I'm hopeful that my attitude towards this day will change as Sidney gets older.  For his sake, I will do my best to get into the spirit of the day but refuse to don a costume myself.  When he wants to carve pumpkins (an easy task to avoid here since they are so hard to come by), decorate the house, or go trick-or treating, I will make sure he has the opportunity to do so.  I will do this because, as parents, those are the type of things we do for our children.

Now give me Thanksgiving and Christmas, and that is an entirely different story.  These are my kind of holidays.  So bring on those days and I'll be much happier.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: Bunkers

One of the most prolific remnants of Albania's Communist past are the thousands of bunkers that litter her cities, villages, mountainsides, and beaches.  They really are everywhere!

As a base for Mary

Channeling the wild west
Exploring my very first bunker

Hanging on precariously

Serving as a perch

Part of a national monument

Guarding the beach

Forest bunkers

Bunker in hiding

Bunker in the mist (guarding the former Party hotel)

Tourist bunkers

Monday, October 28, 2013

When In Chianti..... and drink like a Tuscan!  And that is exactly what we did during our recent trip.

All of Tuscany is beautiful but I am particularly partial to the town, or commune, of Greve in Chianti.  I first visited this beautiful place with my mom several years ago when we used Greve as our "home base" as we explored both Greve and the surrounding Tuscan towns.  Centrally located midway between Pisa, Florence, and Siena, amidst mile upon mile of rolling hillsides covered with vineyards, you can't ask for a more perfect location.  I had been wanting to go back and while we didn't spend the night in Greve during our recent trip, we did happen to visit on the most perfect of fall Sunday afternoons.  And it turns out that we were just in time for Greve's annual Cuochi e Beccai (Chefs and Butchers), a festival dedicated to typical Tuscan beef and beef dishes.

We weren't expecting to encounter a meat festival; rather we were hoping for a good meal, good wine, and perhaps the opportunity to fulfill Sidney's lunchtime request of "sausages."  (Yes, the boy who usually requests pizza or pasta for lunch wanted sausages while we were in Italy).  It turns out we were a week late for the festival, but due to inclement weather it had been rescheduled to the perfectly sunny October afternoon we just happened to be passing through.  Talk about luck!

Now in its seventh year, this food festival is a meat lovers dream.  Greve's small restaurant lined town square (which is actually shaped like a triangle) was filled with craft vendors and the largest outdoor grill I have ever seen.  The unmistakable aroma of grilling meat filled the air as we took in the sights around us.  Italian food is more diverse than many people realize with each region having their own specialties. Tuscany is known for their local produce, pure white Chianina cattle, cannellini beans, and of course Chianti wine.  And for 16 Euros a person, guests at the festival were treated to a heaping plateful of all of these delicacies accompanied by a commemorative glass of local wine.  Not only did Sidney get his sausages (four in all) but each plate also included a slab of ribs that were so tender they literally fell off of the bones and a thick piece of rare T-bone steak that could feed a small family for a week.  There was meat, meat, and more meat.

The event appeared to be popular with locals and tourists alike.  We took our overflowing plates and found seats at plank tables where our dining companions included a young Italian woman and her elderly father, a French couple who was roughly our age, and older British and American tourists.  The tables around us seated a similar hodge-podge of families, dogs, couples, and the ubiquitous groups of teenagers that we have come to expect in every city we visit.  Together we enjoyed the food and wine, discussed how good it all was in a variety of languages, and discovered that there really isn't a polite or easy way to eat meat with plastic forks and knives.  It turns out that fingers are universally acceptable utensils when eating ribs.

The meal was simple.  Chewy thick slices of bread, creamy white beans whose only seasoning was salt and pepper, and a variety of freshly grilled meat.  And it was because of this simplicity that this was one of the best meals I have eaten in a long time and the single best one we had during our Italian vacation.  We didn't plan on attending the festival but are sure glad that we happened upon it.  It was the perfect unexpected conclusion to our Tuscan adventure (while providing us with a week's worth of protein).

Meat grilling

Friday, October 25, 2013

Who Are We? Who Am I?

Identity is a complex concept. There are both physical and emotional qualities that help form one's identity and they are all as different as each of us. Physical characteristics are often personal and unique to individuals;  descriptions such as your height, eye and hair color help shape your identity as do demographics of age and gender. Your role in your own family and community also contributes to how you identify yourself. Parent, brother or sister, friend, spouse, neighbor, employee; they are all a part of shaping who you are.  Personal qualities and beliefs shape your emotional identity.  For many, race, ethnicity, and religion are vitally important and play a leading role in defining one's identity.  For others, it may be a conscious lack there of that defines it for them.  The list just goes on.

I've been thinking about my own personal identity since I returned from my recent trip to Poland.  The combination of my own Polish heritage and physically being in the heart of Europe that was destroyed, dismantled, and then rebuilt during and after World War II forced me to really think about how one's own, and my own identity are formed.  I'm one half Polish.  My Polish ancestors immigrated to the United States shortly after the first World War.  In my younger years we ate my grandmother's Polish cooking, listened to the occasional Polka, and heard her re-tell family stories from the old country and reminisce about her own memories of growing up in a Polish-American household in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Despite my grandmother's brief brush with entering the nunnery, Catholicism, or any religion for that matter, played a non-existent role in my upbringing.   The other part of my heritage is a combination of a little bit of everything.  The family tree for that side of my family includes Pilgrims, dead presidents, and lots of Maritime Canadian ancestry but no strong ethnic identity to speak of. I don't  have any childhood memories of particular traditions or stories being shared from that side of my family.  All of this brings me to my own identity.   Who am I and how do I identify myself? I guess I'm an ethnic mutt but how exactly does this shape who I am?  This question brings me back to my recent ponderings about identity.

When I look around Europe I see forty-five plus countries of various sizes, populations, and ethnicities.  If you look at maps of Europe throughout the years you will see that the borders of countries and empires shifted with war, conquests, and time.  All it took was a slight shifting of a border and residents of one country could suddenly find themselves as citizens of another.  But in many respects geographic borders and boundaries are arbitrary.  Does living on one side of a border give you a different identity than living on the other side of the line? A border shift doesn't change ethnicity but it can suddenly make you an ethnic (insert any nationality here) living in a different country. And that can definitely shape how you and others identify you. 

The country of Kosovo is a prime, modern day example of this.  Kosovo, Albania's neighbor to the east, is ethnically split between Serbs and Albanians yet because of the the geographic borders that define the country residents are technically Kosovars. The border between Kosovo and Serbia is still considered hostile territory to many while the border between Kosovo and Albania feels like a mere inconvenience with even the border crossings being fluid.  Living on the Kosovo side of the border and being a Kosovar (and carrying a Kosovar passport) brings with it different entitlements than living across the border in Albania and carrying an Albanian passport.  Yet many Kosovo residents identify as being Albanian.  So what does this all mean?

All this really makes me think.  Physical identity is fairly easy to label since so much of it is defined by traits and characteristics that are beyond our control.  But is emotional identity nothing more than a label either self imposed or imposed by others?  Does it matter how one identifies them self or how others identify them?  Does one's self identity matter more than how others identify you?  Perhaps it is really the later than matters the most.  Or does it?  For me, this is definitely something to continue to ponder.....

Thursday, October 24, 2013

An Albanian Wine Experience

I like a good wine.  I prefer reds to whites, Italian and Chilean vintages to French and Australian ones but won't turn down a good California wine when it is offered.  Since we've been in Albania I've discovered that there are some very good wines being produced in this part of the world.  I had heard about Croatian (whites) and Macedonian wines and loved them upon trying them but who knew that HungaryRomania, and Montenegro also had award winning wineries. (I've included links to some of my favorite discoveries above).  And don't forget about Italy; from Sicily in the south to the Piedmont region of the north and everywhere in between, Italian wines are reliably good. A quick look at the map would make one think that Albania should be on par with these neighboring countries when it comes to producing very drinkable wine.  After all, the climate and geography are very similar to these great wine making countries. Unfortunately, and I learned the hard way, this isn't necessarily the case.

Having traveled in Italy where house table wines are always a safe and very drinkable option when dining in restaurants, early in our Albanian tenure we started ordering carafes of house wine in restaurants.  We quickly discovered this was a bad choice since more often than not the wine was too acidic, harsh, and most unpleasant to the palate.  And talk about sulfates.  The day after consuming a single glass of these Albanian red wines I would wake up feeling like a partying college co-ed on a Sunday morning.  Determined to find an Albanian wine we liked, we took to buying bottles in the local markets.  Some were moderately better but not great.  I began to suspect the problem was not in the wine production but rather in the storage --many times I've seen it sitting in cases outside in the blazing Mediterranean sun  or in other non, temperature controlled environments-- and we opened more than one bottle that could have easily been confused for vinegar.  And then there was the wine whose cork exploded off the bottle as though it was champagne. And no, it was neither champagne nor any other beverage that was supposed to be carbonated. Cleaning that chunky red mess off of our kitchen wall all but put an end to my drinking of Albanian wine.  But just when I was about to give up, I made a rather pleasant discovery.

On a recent weekend a group of people from our Embassy ventured out to the village of Kallmet in northern Albania to attend a wine tasting at Kantina Kallmeti.  I wasn't sure what to expect; Albania's winery industry is small and developing with most people growing their own grapes and making their own wine for their own personal consumption.  (We've been gifted with numerous label-less bottles of home vintages including the one that exploded).  Only a few wineries have larger scale productions and as far as I knew, Kantina Kallmeti wasn't one of them.  And, given the back story of my Albanian wine experiences to date, I wasn't overly hopeful.

But I should have been.  What Kantina Kallmeti lacked on the outside, it was a typical Albanian structure made of concrete and  ribar set alongside a winding side road north of Lezhe, it more than made up for on the inside.  The building was immaculate with the winery portion of the business separate from their other endeavors.  (This being Albania, they also produce olive oil and grape raki). The winery owner proudly showed us the stainless steel storage tanks and oak casks, both of which had been imported from Italy and discussed their production plan for increasingly their productivity each year.  All of the equipment was shiny and appeared new despite the fact that the winery has been in business since 2007.  (Young by worldly wine making standards but experienced by Albanian ones).  After talking about the source of the grapes and the lengthy process involved in making the three varieties of wine they produce (a white, red, and a reserve red), we got to the fun part of the day, taste testing the wine.  The white was surprisingly good, the red was more than drinkable but the reserve was very very good.  I'll admit, since the bottle was unlabeled (the vintage is so new that labels are still being printed) my previous experiences with similar bottles made me skeptical.  I dare say that this wine was the best Albanian wine I've drank.  It was so good in fact, that despite the cases of wine we already own and are desperately trying to get rid of before our move, we bought more.  An entire case to be exact.  Yes, we liked it that much.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: House Hunters International- Tuscany

The idea all started here in 2008:

A fixer upper outside of Greve in Chianti (complete with vineyards
and olive groves of course)

And we're still looking and dreaming:

An ideal location

We might need some windows with this one

Rolling fields

Lots of olive groves

Or maybe a cathedral?

Because dreaming beats reality!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Standing Up To Violence

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. Each year during this time, advocates, supporters, and survivors take to the streets and airwaves in an effort to bring awareness to this growing epidemic that strikes all too close to home. We live in a society where it is hard enough for women to come forward and admit that they are being hurt by their spouses and partners so it is just that much more difficult for men to do so.  While statistics show that most victims of domestic violence are women (three out of every four) that means men are victims too. Statistics regarding male violence are even harder to come by than those for women and they vary more as well.  But they are real and any number is one too many.  Regardless of how the numbers pan out, it is undeniable then men are also hurt by violence inside of the home and when one person is hurt, everyone is affected by it.

In college I was part of a campus wide effort that raised awareness about the effects of domestic violence.  Being that we had an all female student body, our focus was primarily on violence perpetrated against women by men but also female on female violence.  Domestic violence against men was never a topic we discussed or acknowledged.  After college I volunteered at a local shelter and was part of a hot line that answered calls from victims of domestic abuse.  I only received a few calls during my time (wo)manning the hot line but I did receive one call from a man.   Despite all of my training I remember my naive shock that a man was on the other end of the line (and not in the taunting or harassing way that angry men occasionally called the unlisted number).  This man simply needed someone to listen as he questioned whether the verbal and occasional physical assaults inflicted upon him by his wife were abuse.  In the end he answered his questions for himself but I remember my heart breaking as I listened to him talk, cry, and question.  (Emotions know no gender).  I still remember this call close to 20 years later and often wonder what became of him and his wife.   I never knew his name so I'll never know but I still wonder.  And unfortunately, he was definitely not an anomaly since men are victims of domestic violence as well.

Domestic violence can take many forms; it may be physical, verbal, or emotional and is often a combination of all three.  It is estimated that 835,000 men in the United States are physically assaulted by their intimate partners each year.  While physical abuse is apt to leave scars and outward telltale signs, verbal and emotional abuse can be even more damaging.  Insults, undue criticisms, and name calling may not leave physical wounds but their scars are present just the same.   While physical abuse is easier to identify--after all a physical strike is a physical strike-- emotional and verbal abuse is more difficult to identify. When is nagging or henpecking something more?  How does one identify where the line lies?  Like its physical sibling, emotional abuse wears people down and does lasting damage.  None of this is healthy behavior and all of it is detrimental to individuals, families, and communities.

Regardless of the gender of the perpetrator or subject of abuse, any violence inside of the home effects everyone who lives there.  Young or old, male or female, being subjected to or simply witnessing violence is detrimental to the household unit.  It all must stop now.  As such, I'm writing this blog entry to do my little part to raise awareness about this terrifying topic.  And you too, can do your part. If you suspect someone is a victim, reach out to them and offer your support.  If you can, attend a local awareness event in your community or volunteer your time and resources to an organization that supports survivors of domestic violence.  Every bit really does help.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Leaning Tower

At an angle
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is perhaps one of the most iconic and well known sights in the world because, well, the tower leans.  It wasn't actually designed to lean but ever since it took on its tilt early in her 344 year construction history, it has remained that way.  So why does the tower lean?  Apparently it was constructed with an inadequate foundation on soft ground that began to sink in 1178 once the second floor was added to the tower.  Logic would dictate that construction would have stopped but instead it continued until the resulting construction project was the 14,500 ton marble and granite masterpiece it is today.  When completed the south side of the tower was 187.27 feet and had 296 steps while the north side stood at 186 feet and had 294 steps.  The difference sounds minuscule results in a noticeable tilt.  The degree of the lean increased through the centuries with ongoing debates as to whether or not the tower should simply be straightened. The 1989 collapse of the Civic Tower of Pavia outside of Milan hastened the decision to fortify Pisa's tower and when it reopened to the public in 2001 the tower still had a lean but was a bit straighter, sturdier, and more importantly, the work was promised to hold for another 300 years.  (None of us will be around in 2301 to test the workmanship but you get the idea).  How is that for a warranty?
Another perspective

Despite all of this, a visit to the Leaning Tower is pretty darn cool.  I seriously don't like heights but managed to overcome them during my first visit to Pisa where I slowly followed the crowds as we wound our way up the spiral to the top of the tower.  Sure you can visually see the lean from the outside of the tower but once inside, the tilt is even more noticeable as you climb the stairs.  Compounding the lean is the fact that these stairs, all 294 and 296 of them, have been worn by visitors and time, making them concave in spots and convoluted in others.  I found it rather unnerving to make my tilted way to the top and then back down again and wasn't sure whether I was standing erect or at a tilt once I was back on the ground.

During my most recent visit to Pisa I noticed that the tower isn't the only thing that is leaning in the city.  The nearby Duomo also appears to have an ever so slight tilt to it which would make sense given its close proximity to the tower.  At first I thought it was just my imagination but when Glenn commented on it I thought that perhaps I was onto something.  It makes me wonder if the entire city is sinking?  Or at least the area around the Duomo and tower.  (Sink holes immediately come to mind!).  I can't find any evidence that says it is but the region is in a medium risk zone for earthquakes so what would a moderate sized tremor do to the already leaning architecture?  I'm not saying it is going to happen but it does make me wonder...............

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Foodie is NOT A Four Letter Word

"Love people:  cook them tasty food"

                              --Penzeys Spices

I love good food and I'm not ashamed to admit it.  This isn't news to anyone who reads my food blog.  I subscribe to way too many culinary magazines and spend hours on end getting inspired by other's food blogs, I ran out of space on my cookbook shelf years ago, and my kitchen (both of them) cabinets are bursting with gadgets and utensils that regularly get put to good use.  Whether it be eating it, cooking it, or simply dreaming up new recipes, food is often on my mind.  During my long bouts with insomnia I fantasize about new flavor combinations and develop menus for future dinners. When eating out I'm the person who will taste a dish for the first time and then spend the rest of the meal trying to determine the source of all of the flavors with the plan of replicating the dish at home.  And not all food has to be fancy, five star experiences; some of the best food I've ever tasted has been purchased from street vendors or hole-in-the-wall type establishments.  I'll try anything at least once since that is how I've made some of my favorite culinary discoveries.  After all, variety is the spice of culinary life.  For me, all I ask is that food is well prepared with love.  

One of my biggest disappointments about our time in Albania has been the lack of culinary variety here.  I've tasted some good Albanian food but repeatedly walk away from the traditional tables craving more variety since the options presented to us are often limited to just a few items.  While the variety of what is available has improved over the past two years I still find it to be lacking so our trips outside of the country have served as culinary lifesavers where I can enjoy the foods I crave while discovering new foods and flavors with the hope of recreating them at home.  Whether it be noshing on grilled meats from a street vendor in Ljubljana, eating a formal traditional Polish feast in Warsaw, or consuming the best pizza I've ever had at a roadside gas station in Naples, I've enjoyed it all.  As a lover of Asian foods of all kinds, and unable to find really good Asian food here in Tirana, we make it a point to eat at Indian and Thai restaurants in every foreign city we visit.  (The quality of my own Asian cooking has increased significantly since we've arrived here because making it myself has been my only real option).  And of course we also eat as local as we can.  With the exception of the requisite cheeseburger from a Hard Rock Cafe, we avoid western chain restaurants like the plague.  (My family loves good burgers and have yet to find one overseas outside of a HRC that even comes close to the Kelly's Tavern burgers what we are craving).  Repeatedly, I return home from each trip culinarily inspired and always spend the next few days in the kitchen attempting to recreate the dishes I enjoyed so much.

There is a word for people like me:  foodie.  A foodie is simply someone who has a keen interest in food and drink and views eating and drinking as a hobby to be enjoyed rather than a chore that simply fuels their body.  There is nothing wrong with liking and enjoying food but somewhere along the way, and I'm not really sure where or when this happened, being a foodie became a dirty word.  I'm an avid reader of the Washington Post food column and eagerly look forward to food writer Tom Sietsema's weekly online chat about the D.C. food scene.  (Of course Glenn just tells me that this is a form of self imposed torture since I am only able to dream about partaking in all of the dining options).  I've been following this chat for years but have noticed that as of late,  an increasing number of participants have been commenting snidely about the use of the word foodie as though being one is a bad thing.  Why or why is being labeled as a foodie turning into a bad thing?  Is it wrong to like good tasting food and seek it out?  Why should I feel ashamed for caring about what I put in my family's mouths?  Is it wrong that I prefer quality over quantity? (Americans eating at high end restaurants often complain that portions are too small).  Call me a food snob but I refuse to apologize for liking good food.

Yes, I'm a foodie and I am proud of it.  And with that, I'm going to spend the rest of my Sunday cooking up a storm.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Return To Tuscany

Me and the Pisa Pigeon- 2008
We spent the past weekend exploring the hill towns of Tuscany.  While it was a first trip for Glenn and Sidney, it was an encore one for me and I was excited to introduce my boys to a part of Italy that I absolutely adore.  I first visited Tuscany in 2008 with my mom when we spent twelve glorious days eating, drinking, and exploring our way from Lucca to Siena and everywhere in between.  The trip was so memorable that I have been talking and thinking about this beautiful place ever since and I had been dying to go back.  Despite my desire, a small part of me feared returning since there was the chance that Tuscany wouldn't live up to my memories.  Fortunately I was wrong.  Dead wrong in fact.  As we retraced my footsteps every place was just as wonderful, if not more so, than I remembered it being.

Two things struck me immediately.  The first thing I noticed was that Tuscany was filled with more American tourists than I remembered.  Whether we were in line waiting to pick up our rental car, on the train to Lucca, or sitting at a local wine festival in Greve, Americans were everywhere.  I almost think we saw more Americans than we did Italians.  Or at least it felt that way since our dining companions at even the most tucked away restaurants were fellow Americans. The other thing I noticed was the sheer beauty of Tuscany; it was more spectacular than I remembered.  In many ways the scenery, filled with rolling hills, vineyards, and stone buildings, was so idyllic it felt like a cliche.  If you've ever seen a calendar of Tuscan scenes and wondered whether they are real or not, trust me--they are.

We packed a lot into our long weekend.  Of course it wouldn't be a trip to Pisa without standing in the shadow of the City's famous Leaning Tower.  But as it usually the case, the best parts of the country are those outside of the urban areas.  We took the train to the walled city of Lucca and despite the rain, spent several hours walking along the broad wall and meandering through the narrow cobblestone streets and alleys that are quintessential Italy.  With our little rental car (Sidney said it was like his Cozy Coupe), we set out across the Tuscan hills to Siena where I finally climbed to the top of the Torre del Mangia in the Piazza del Campo.  My fear of heights prevented me from doing it the first time I visited but this time I was determined to accompany Sidney and Glenn to the top.  The famous Palio di Siena horse race takes place in the square twice a year but during our visit it was pleasantly tranquil (except for the other American tourists) providing Sidney with ample room to chase pigeons.  We visited the famous wine town of Montepulciano where we of course sampled the local beverage.  In Greve in Chianti we happened upon a local wine and food festival and joined the locals (and American tourists) in drinking wine and eating massive plates of fresh grilled meats and beans.  Just outside of Greve we walked through the narrow alleys of Montefioralle and dreamed about what it would be like to have a retirement home in this hilltop village.  In between all of this we took in miles upon miles of rolling hills covered with vineyards, olive groves, and cypress lined lanes leading to hilltop villas.  Avoiding the highways we drove along both paved and dirt roads stopping to take pictures and just enjoy the views along the way.  The whole experience was just so relaxing.

And of course we ate.  While Sidney had his fill of pizza with the occasional pasta thrown in for variety, Glenn and I were able to eat fresh pastas and other specialities to our hearts desire.  Autumn is truffle season in Tuscany so this delicacy was on the menu as was Glenn's all time favorite dessert, tirimisu.  Sidney is now a fan as well and most nights ended with my two boys spoon-fighting over the last remnants on the dessert plate.  Tuscany is probably best known for her wine and of course it didn't disappoint.  In Albania I am loathe to order the house wine in a restaurant but in Tuscany, that is all we drank and it was good.  Really good.  Unfortunately because we were flying home we were limited in what we could buy but we enjoyed what we could.  (We will just have to go back to drink some more).

I loved Tuscany the first time but love it all the more now.  Seeing it through Sidney's eyes, complete with water fountains, "pretty" fields, and yes pigeons, gave me a whole new appreciation for the region.  I will never get tired of the scenery, the food, or the gentle feel of Tuscany.  Once again, I can't wait to go back.

Visiting the Chianti Rooster in Greve

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Explaining Change

It has happened millions of times the world over but this is the first time we've been faced with having the conversation. What conversation you ask?  The one with our almost four year old where we need to help him understand that in a few short months we will be packing up and moving to a totally new country and he will leave behind so much of the world that is familiar to him.  This isn't the first time we've moved since Sidney was born. In fact, we moved when he was just a few months old then again when we came to Albania a little over a year later. But this impending move will be different since it will be the first one where he both remembers where we're coming from and will remember where we are going.  And because of his strong attachment to his Albanian life, I'm unsure as to how to go about preparing for it and explaining it all.

Early next year the movers will arrive at our house to pack up all of our worldly belongings and ship them off to Belgium.  With the crates will go Sidney's toys, clothing, and books; the very physical items that provide him with daily comfort.  For a little boy who has thrived in his current environment, life as he knows it will be changing in a big way.  He will be leaving behind his dear Nene, the woman who has been like a grandmother to him and has cared for him since the moment we arrived in Albania.  He only knows one house, (perhaps better than we do), he knows "his" playground and his street and no other.  While we've done a lot of traveling, we always return to our home and surroundings that are familiar to Sidney.  When we land in our new, semi-permanent home, we will be in a completely foreign environment. (Literally and physically).  Sidney's daily routine will change as he will be attending school for the first time where he will initially know no one and the students and teachers will speak neither English nor Albanian.  He will be brought home at the end of the day in a new car to a new house filled with new furniture (or at least furniture that is new to him).  It will all be so foreign to him that I wonder how I can help him understand what is happening.

Like the obsessive and book loving mother I am, I've purchased age appropriate reading material on the subject.  In these books, the Berenstain Bears are both moving to a new home and attending school for the first time.   While I wait for them to arrive in the mail, I have started to talk about these impending changes with Sidney and he isn't happy about it.  One of Sidney's playmates for the past two years recently left Post.  We've been using this as a learning tool and when Sidney asks about his friend we explain that he moved with his family to a new home and soon, our family will be doing the same.  To provide comfort I've assured him that we will be together as a family; or "just the three of us" as he likes to say.  This doesn't sit well with him and Sidney has informed me on numerous occasions that not only does he want his friend to come back to Tirana but that Sidney doesn't want to move.  When I've brought up getting to pick out new furniture to go in his new room (yes, I'm stooping to bribes here), he has informed me that he wants his current (Embassy owned) bed.  The prospect of making new friends at school is met with a proclamation that he likes his friends here.  (And I haven't even mentioned the part about all of this being done in French......).  Because Sidney loves flying on airplanes I've talked up that experience of flying to get to Belgium and promised him that we can stay in a hotel when we arrive. Hotels are another thing he loves but I have omitted the fact that we will be staying in one for two months or so.  Sidney is excited about flying and staying in a hotel but also says that when we come back home (Albania) he will be able to tell Nene all about it. Ugh!  

I'm hoping these books can help Sidney understand and accept our impending move in a way I just can't explain.  Or, perhaps, they can at least help make these next few months less painful.  I know change is hard; adults struggle with it so I can only imagine what goes through the mind of a four year old.  I feel helpless and fear that the only thing I can do---reassure Sidney about the changes--- just isn't enough.  Because children are incredibly resilient I know Sidney will be OK but I wish there was a way I could make this process easier for him.  After all, as a "Navy brat" this won't be his last childhood move.  I can only hope it gets easier.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: Exploring Albania's Black Caves

Because some places are worth re-visiting:

Inside looking out

Outside looking in

Baby stalagmite

Bigger stalagmite

Stalagmites and stalactites

Stalagmite meets stalactites; it was centuries in the making

Bat ghost