Friday, November 29, 2013

Oh Black Friday

This is a repost from this day last year.  But this year I am even more disheartened by the fact that so many more retailers opted to open yesterday touting even more "deals" for our consumerism driven society.  Their opening robbed thousands of low wage retail employees of the opportunity to have a day off and the ability to spend a time honored American holiday with their families.  Is this really what America stands for?


One of the few things that makes me embarrassed to be an American is the chaotic mob scenes and feeding frenzy that surround Black Friday.  Forget the mass consumerism aspect of what the holidays have become; it is the actual shopping madness that turns me off the most.  While most of the world was waking up, heading to work for the last day of the week, and going about their everyday business, millions of Americans are standing in line, braving crowds, and in some cases storming stores in order to score what they deemed was a great deal.  Why does the idea of buying an item, that you probably don't need in the first place, at a reduced price, drive us to join in the feeding frenzy? From stories of young children being left alone in cold vehicles while adults shop to women engaging in fist fights and guns being pulled on fellow bargain hunters, reports of these behaviors is down right humiliating.  And let us not forget the Walmart employee who was trampled to death by a crowd of over eager shoppers a few years ago.  Really?  For a Walmart item?  What on earth does Walmart sell that is so special that it causes a stampede?  Every year news reports show footage of people camping out in front of big box electronics stores so that they can get their hands on  that year's "must have" item.  Is a 51 inch flat screen television worth it?  Is receiving a free sample size of lotion because you were one of the first one hundred people to enter the store worth staying up all night?

I love a good deal just as much as the next person (maybe more) but I just don't see the attraction of this shopping frenzy.  Maybe I am jaded from my early post-college years when I worked in retail.  My Thanksgivings were never spent with family since I had to work at crack 'o dawn on Friday morning.  (I guess I should be grateful that this was in the days before stores decided to open on Thursday night).  Perhaps it is having seen the deal seeking crowds first hand that was enough to turn me off from the shopping craze.  I once had a boyfriend whose mother was a Black Friday shopping fanatic.  She would go to bed early on Thanksgiving evening so she could be the first one in the stores in the morning.  She developed her shopping strategy around who was giving away freebies at which hour and usually came home with a variety of useless items whose only appropriate use were the office white elephant party.

The Internet age has ushered in the online equivalent of the Friday shopping spectacle:  Cyber Monday.  Much like its end of the week counterpart, this is the day where great Internet deals are supposed to abound.  Maybe this is a calmer, more civilized way of shopping; I have no idea since it all takes place behind closed doors with no witnesses if you get in a fist fight with your spouse over who gets control the computer.  The irony of it all is that, like Black Friday's sales that actually begin on Thanksgiving evening, many of Cyber Monday's steals began on Saturday.   And how many of these deals are really deals?  Many of these so-called deals that keep popping up in my in-box offer no more of a savings than those that were appearing last week or even last month.  My response to each new offer is to promptly click delete but I'm probably in the minority on this since 52% of shoppers are planning on completing their holiday shopping online this year.  But will they all be shopping on Cyber Monday? Or will they be holding out for a better deal?

I recently had a conversation with several international friends about what it means to be American and what others think of as America.  It saddened me to hear that some of the first responses involved shopping malls, miles of highways, and Oprah.  Really? Italy has great food, Paris has the Eiffel Tower and the United States has Walmart?  What does that say about our country and our culture?  How do we break this stereo-type?  Images of brawling bargain hunters buying mass quantities of cheap Chinese produced merchandise certainly isn't the answer.  Maybe I need to just accept America for what it is:  the land of the free and the home of the brave and mass consumerism.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Talking Turkey Take Two (Three & Four)

Gobble!  Gobble!  Yes, today is Thanksgiving and more than any other, this holiday is all about food.  And not just any food but the turkey (or in my case, its the side dishes that take center stage).  But in reality, without the turkey, it just wouldn't feel like Thanksgiving.  Living overseas, procuring the requisite turkey can sometimes prove to be a challenge.  You just need to log onto any ex-pat blog to see what measures Americans will go through in order to put a turkey on their Thanksgiving table.  Where turkey isn't available any combination of fowl may be substituted with varying results.  But if it isn't turkey........  For many Americans however, when you say the word turkey, we immediately think about a Butterball turkey.  (And as we discovered, Butterball turkeys are as coveted here in Albania as well; mention turkey to an Albanian and they say it is good, tell them it is a Butterball and their level of excitement skyrockets).  Currently we are fortunate that we not only have access to fresh turkeys on a seasonal basis but we also have the ability to import Butterball turkeys from American military bases located here in Europe.  So this year, there is plenty of turkey to go around.

Because we love Thanksgiving and (now) have a ready stash of Butterball turkeys in our freezer I am excited to once again be hosting a dinner today for some of our closest Albanian friends.  I'm even going out on a limb for the first time and following the advice of a good friend, am roasting my turkey from the frozen state.  Yes, you read that right, I plopped the entire frozen bird in the oven this morning and as I type, it is roasting away and smelling very much like a turkey.  (The complete story will surely be a future blog post!).  We haven't even sat down to eat the bird yet and Glenn is already talking about the turkey sandwich he will make with the leftovers.

But this is not our first Thanksgiving of the year.  Last month we hosted a mock Thanksgiving dinner that was profiled in an Albanian lifestyle magazine.  We ate the 30 pound turkey for more meals than I want to remember and only finished up the last of the frozen leftovers last week ---just in time for us to stock up on more turkey leftovers.  Last night, Americans from our Embassy were the guests of the President of Albania at a very large, American style Thanksgiving dinner.  Attending a dinner the night before our own big dinner had been the last place that I wanted to be, but off we went.  (And unlike our holiday travels back in the U.S., this dinner only required a three minute drive to get there).  Served in the Palace of Brigades, which is one of Albania's more impressive buildings, the multi-course meal blended both American and Albanian customs and foods with turkey being the centerpiece of the meal.  And just in case we haven't had our fill of turkey and all of the accompanying sides, tomorrow we will be eating our fourth Thanksgiving feast when we join friends from the Embassy who are hosting their own holiday dinner.  I'm guessing that by the time Monday rolls around I will be very tired of turkey.  So much so that I'm already planning a Christmas dinner that includes beef rather than, you guessed it......turkey.

Gobble, gobble.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Rules Of The Road

Traffic fatalities are a problem in Albania.  According to the Albanian Ministry of Health, traffic accidents are one of the leading causes of death in this tiny Balkan country.  Here, victims of traffic accidents account for the highest percentage of emergency room usage with incidents of traffic related accidents being 3.5% higher here than they are in the rest of Eastern and Central Europe and aren't showing any signs of decreasing.  The U.S. Department of State warns American citizens of the dangers of Albanian roads both as a driver and as a pedestrian (since hit and run incidents are all too common).  Even in conversations with Albanians I've noticed a reluctant acceptance as though traffic fatalities are just a way of life here.  We hear of fatalities in the news, communities mourn and bury their dead, then life and driving habits seem to continue on a normal.  More likely than not, people will cite the weather or conditions of the roads as the cause of the problem (yes, they are bad) rather than the speeding and distracted driver, the lack of safe vehicles, or the unsecured passengers.  Just this past week the death of a sitting member of Parliament in a traffic accident has pushed this issue back into the news.  One can only hope that such a high level death will be bring about the changes that are needed to put a halt to this easily preventable epidemic.

But the high number of Albanian traffic fatalities can't be attributed to a lack of laws.  In fact, according to information provided by the World Health Organization, Albania has a rather high number of laws on the books that should in fact be reducing the number of traffic accidents and fatalities.  National laws regarding speeding, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the use of child safety seats, and seat belt use for both drivers and passengers are all readily cited as existing in the law books.  The problem, one must surmise, lies in the enforcement, or lack there of, of these laws.  (Actually, Albanians and Albanian Parliament seem to love passing laws; it is enforcing them that becomes the problem.  Albanians are quick to justify actions as there being a law about the said issue yet rarely does anyone say that these said laws are ever enforced).

In the wake of this week's high profile fatality, police officials are stepping forward with statements promising both increased enforcement and increased education.  (This sounds promising, at least).  In fact, it appears that the government has slowly been edging in this direction.  A few weeks ago the police announced that they would now be arresting drunk drivers on the spot rather than issuing them tickets and allowing them to go on their merry way.  Yes, you read that correctly.  While this sounds like a logical and long over due measure, it begs the question as to whether there is a real understanding of the dangers of drinking and driving.  How does issuing a fine yet allowing an inebriated driver to remain behind the wheel make the streets safer?

The lack of enforcement can't be due to a lack of police presence on the streets.  Blue uniform clad officers holding traffic lolly pops are a regular sight all most of Albania's roads.  I often see them standing in the center of intersections holding their citation books and directing traffic with frantic movements of their sticks.  But as I see cars packed with too many passengers speed by them, others drive against the flow of traffic, and still more drivers create new lanes of traffic because there is space to do so, I wonder what laws these officers are actually enforcing.  I have witnessed what appears to be an increase in enforcement lately---vehicles driving the wrong way during our short morning commute are getting pulled over more often-- but somehow when I see the arguments that ensure then the police officer simply shrug as the irate driver pulls away, I wonder if this is really enough.

So let's discuss the education component of all this.  There is talk of creating public service announcements to educate drivers as to what traffic signs and signals mean, the purposes of solid lines down the middle of the street, and why you can't just drive and park on sidewalks or any other open space you encounter.  Albania certainly isn't lacking for drivers education schools--you see old Mercedes toting "auto skolle" signs plying all of the country's roads and highways--so it begs the question of what these students are actually learning in class.  Apparently it isn't the importance of obeying speed limits and road rules.  Drivers are quick to use their blinkers before turning or coming into oncoming traffic.  However, in doing so it appears that they think that looking both ways (or either way) is no longer necessary.  (Never making eye contact with other drivers seems to be the one "traffic rule" that everyone obeys).  Drivers here seem to think that if there is space in the road (or sidewalk) they are entitled to drive there even if it means driving into on coming traffic or endangering everyone around them.  All too often I've seen cars driving the wrong way in a traffic circle or into the oncoming lane of a divided highway simply because it appears to be the shortest route between where the car is coming from and where it is heading.  Our own single Albanian traffic accident occurred when the driver of a van backed into us and justified his actions to the police with the excuse that he backed down the street every day.  Since our car didn't suffer any damage the van driver was sent on his way and we were told we should have used our car horn to warn him of our presence.  Really?  I guess the lesson in all of this was that we need to get out of the way of all vehicles since everyone, regardless of the direction in which they are moving, has the right of way.  Does all of this happen because drivers don't know or do they simply not care?

I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen seat belts being worn and more often than not the number of bodies packed into a vehicle far exceeds the number of seats.  Child safety seats are now readily available in Tirana's stores yet I've been told that they take up too much space and wouldn't allow as many passengers to be able to fit into the vehicle.  Instead I regularly see infants and toddlers (sometimes multiple children) sitting on the laps of front seat passengers and even the drivers themselves.  Since the number of vehicles driving around with head indentations on their windshields isn't sending a clear enough message, perhaps there needs to be an education campaign to inform drivers about the basic laws of physics and why it is dangerous to have unsecured passengers in the vehicle.

The entire traffic situation begs the question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg.  Does enforcement (and I mean real enforcement) of the existing laws come first in an attempt to make it safer for everyone in Albanian to move around the country?  Or does the country first undertake a massive education campaign to teach drivers what they need to know in order to navigate the roads safely? Or do both activities take place simultaneously?  How can drivers be held accountable for both their actions and the laws that as drivers, they should know?  In a country that is all about personal responsibility and accountability, doesn't each and every driver have the responsibility to both know and obey the law?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Its A Date!

A what?  A date.  Otherwise known as a chance to spend quality one-on-one time with your partner without the interruption of ringing phones, small talk with colleagues, needy children fighting for your attention, and dozens of other interruptions that define daily life.  If you are married, have children, and / or work inside or outside of the home you know exactly what I am referring to.  And last night, Glenn and I went on one.

In our house, dates currently don't happen very often. After we got married but before we became parents we regularly went out on dates.  These quiet dinners followed by a movie were a regular part of our weekly schedule giving us an opportunity to relax, reconnect, and enjoy each other's company.  Now, not so much.  In fact, the last time we had a date was when we were in Paris celebrating our wedding anniversary back in April.  Yes, it had really been that long since we have had alone time.  That doesn't mean we haven't been out. We get dressed up and go out to dinners and receptions on a regular basis but these events are always work related where our purpose is to schmooze rather than enjoy a fine meal and each other's company.  After spending numerous evenings out at official functions most nights we can't muster the energy to go out on our own opting to stay in and spend time with Sidney instead.  We do go out to eat with Sidney but dining with a four year old means ordering quickly, spending the meal making sure food ends up where it is supposed to, and leaving the restaurant before a disruptive melt down ensues.  These are hardly relaxing affairs. So yes, the idea of a real adults-only date is quite exciting.

So last night we went on a real live date.  We walked to a restaurant that we had been wanting to try.  In what is almost typical Albanian fashion, we had the place to ourselves even though we were dining at a "normal" Balkan dining hour.  At first it was kind of odd since it was just us and a handful of waiters but it actually meant we got great service.  They were ready to serve us but didn't hover.  We didn't feel rushed since there was clearly no one waiting for our table.  We were able to eat our meals at a leisurely pace, enjoy our wine and talk.  I mean really talk.  Without interruptions too.  Not about the details and priorities of family and office life but of any topic that came to mind.  From the serious to the silly it was all on the table.  It felt so adult and was wonderfully relaxing and was just what we needed.  We even ordered dessert and after dinner drinks before leisurely walking back to our car and the reality of our daily lives.

And now it is Saturday and we are back to reality.  There are appointments to go to, holiday preparations to be made and an energetic four year old boy to entertain.  Last night is already fading into a distant memory but it sure was nice while it lasted.  We need to remember this feeling and make sure we don't go another six months before we do it again.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Calm Before The Storm

I feel like I'm sitting on the cusp of a storm where once I take the next step there will be no going back.  What storm you ask?  The birthday-holiday-moving one.  Sidney's birthday is next week.  Yes, my little baby will turn four two days before Thanksgiving.  He's informed me that at three he is still little but when he turns four he will be a big boy.  And as such, he has some very firm ideas about his cake; chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting of course topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup.  Before that he wants to eat bacon and waffles for breakfast then hot dogs and macaroni and cheese for dinner.  (This is not my idea of a culinary good time but he is the birthday boy after all and I told him he could eat whatever he wants).  More importantly, if the weather holds Glenn and I have a very special surprise for our airplane loving boy this weekend.  Yes, I'm stooping to something I had always told myself I wouldn't do and we are celebrating his birthday two days early because it is just easier.  To some people that might make me a bad mom but I'm just trying to be practical and make sure he gets the birthday he wants and deserves.  So if that means it is celebrated early, so be it.  
And that is because right on the heels of his birthday comes the annual American food festival called Thanksgiving.  For me, it is the single biggest cooking and food day of the year and it takes time to prepare.  As usual, we're hosting a dinner for friends.  And although our guest list is small (just 8 compared to the 24 of recent years), in a week that is already filled with other non-negotiable commitments, my cooking and preparation time is limited. Somehow even with fewer guests the number of dishes I have planned has increased.  I'm not sure when it will all be cooked but it will.  Because like Sidney's birthday, it has to be done.
Once Thanksgiving is behind us December is upon us with her requisite decorating and rounds of holiday parties and dinners at which we will be both guests and hosts.  Gifts need to be selected, purchased and wrapped and another round (or two) of cooking will ensue.  Oh, and did I mention this little thing called an international move that will be taking place in January?  Yes, we need to prepare for that one too.
So today I'm stepping back and taking a deep breath to prepare myself for the storm that is to come.  T.G.I.F.  Because once Saturday hits there will be no turning back.  

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Windows Into History

Crosses outside of an
Orthodox church in
Bucharest, Romania
Wednesday's post was a pictorial of some of the European churches we have visited.  It was only while looking at my pictures from the past two years that I realized just how many churches we have visited.  I've lost track of the exact number we've toured but I feel confident in saying that we've toured at least one, and likely more, in each city and country we've traveled to.  Its almost ironic that visiting churches has become the highlight of so many of our travels.  Despite Glenn's being a graduate of Catholic school and my being a religion minor in college, neither one of us is what you could consider religious and unless we are visiting family, we do not attend church services.  But drop us into a foreign city and we are quick to visit the local cathedral, lesser known churches, and mosques as well. Even Sidney knows the routine and removes his hat and speaks in a whisper when we approach any church.  Perhaps it is because of our secular view on life that we can really appreciate these centers of religious life for their sheer beauty, architectural magnificence and historical significance.  Whether the churches are Muslim mosques, Roman Catholic cathedrals, or Orthodox Christian monasteries, each one is unique in its own way and provides visitors with a brief peak into a community's heritage and silently speaks to the rich and diverse history of Europe.

There are are two things that I'm discovering with the more time I spend overseas. First, despite its (comparatively) small size, Europe is culturally diverse and as such, has a diverse religious heritage meaning churches are every where.  And I do mean every where.  In many cities it is possible to visit churches of differing faiths all within a block of one another.  The second thing I've come to realize is that Europe is old. I mean really old and not the "new" old of the United States.  Stepping foot into a church dating back many hundreds, if not thousands, of years is much more common than visiting one built during our lifetime.  And these churches speak directly to the times during which they were constructed.  Ornate or stark, gilded, stone or wooden, all are important houses of worship for their followers.

Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral was impressive but I liked the
neighboring Sainte Chapelle better
Prior to coming to Albania I had heard the call to prayer but never stepped foot inside of a mosque.  My first of many mosque visits was to the world famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey and I was immediately struck by its grand size and ornate blue tiles.  Its opulence rivaled that of the grandest of gilded Catholic cathedrals.  Other smaller mosques in the city were almost but not quite as grand as well.  The Catholic churches of western Europe are some of the most ornate and lavishly decorated buildings I have ever encountered.  In many of them, even the "lesser" churches everything appears to be gilded in gold.  I expected as much when visiting the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica, but had expectations of seeing fewer jewels and gold in other churches.  I quickly found that this wasn't necessarily the case.  It continues to boggle my mind when I think about the sheer net worth of these churches where the walls and ceilings alone probably cost more than the annual budget of a small country.  At the same time, I've learned that these cathedrals weren't built overnight, often taking centuries to complete.  From a historical perspective, it is easy to understand that during the darker periods in history, where religion played such a large role in everyday life, even the most common  of people would give their money to "the Church" with the hope of achieving happiness and enlightenment in their after life.  But then again, not all Catholic churches are gilded in gold.  Traveling through the countries encompassing the former Austro-Hungarian empires, many of the churches are sparsely decorated stone sanctuaries where the sound of a pin dropping would be sure to echo.  Again, this speaks to the times
Inside St. Mary's Basilica in Krakow, Poland
and places where these churches were built.  
Many of the Orthodox churches I've visited have tended to be dark and solemn, smelling heavily of incense. This was particularly the case during our travels through Romania and Bulgaria where the churches we visited may have had ornate carvings and frescoes that rivaled those found in Catholic churches but were much darker and more somber than the gold gilded insides of their Catholic contemporaries.  From the narrow seats that serve as pews to the somber faced icons on the walls, these churches leave me with the feeling that life, and the church itself, is a punishment and mental, if not physical, torture.  But their darkness has its own form of beauty and to me at least, speaks volumes about the history and times of the church.  
Frescoes in Voskopoja

And then you have Albanian churches.  During the Communist era, all forms of religion were outlawed and Albania was officially designated as a secular state.  Many, but not all, of the churches and religious icons were destroyed and religion of any kind was not practiced publicly.  (Fortunately, some of the more historically valuable icons were spared destruction and are now housed in a museum in the city of Korce).  Today, Albania is a religiously tolerant country that on paper is predominently Muslim but it has its share of Catholic and Orthodox churches as well.  Old churches and monasteries exist in various states of (dis)repair but for the most part they lack the ornate trappings found in so many other churches.  In some churches you can see remnants of frescoes and other religious icons but in others you encounter nothing but barren stone walls.  The hilltop town of Voskopoja, once a thriving commercial hub in the Balkans but now a small village with numerous churches in various conditions, is undergoing a renaissance of sorts where her ancient churches are being painstakingly restored.  Many of them exist as piles of rubble or nothing but shells of their former selves.  New religious buildings of all faiths are being erected throughout Albania as well.  These contemporary structures may lack the grandness of older churches, but regardless of the trappings, they serve their religious purpose.  I've learned that visiting an Albanian church, regardless of its denomination, is a solemn affair but then again, this speaks directly to the history and culture of the country. 

But the message I get from visiting an Albanian church is no different than visiting one in nearby Greece or Macedonia or France or Sweden.  The religious beliefs practiced inside the walls may differ and some may be more ornate than others but all are symbolic of their people and the times in which they were built.  For me, walking into any church is like stepping back into history.   And houses of worship are an vital part of Europe's long and storied history.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: All Eyes Are Watching God

Krakow, Poland
Budapest, Hungary
Vienna, Austria
Prague, Czech Republic
Ohrid, Macedonia
Christmas preparations in Dubrovnik, Croatia

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
Ayasofya, Istanbul, Turkey

Voskopoje, Albania

Cathedral of Toledo, Spain
Corfu, Greece

Meteora, Greece

Bucharest, Romania

Sofia, Bulgaria

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Putting The "T" Back In Team

Team:  A group of people who compete in a sport, game, etc. against another group; a group of people who work together.
Team work:  Work done by several associates with each doing a part but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole.
Whether it is in a professional or personal setting being and working as a part of a team makes everything function that much smoother.  But somehow, it often feels like everyone is on a different page, not coordinating their efforts and generally going it alone.  It doesn't matter whether you work for the most bureaucratic organization (say a government entity....) or the most free spirited not-for-profit, unless you are a one (wo)man operation, you are a part of a team.  Even then, no one is an island.  And as such, we should all be working towards a common goal and recognize a success as one belonging to the team and a failure as being the group's as well.  Hanging individuals out to dry or claiming ownership of a project that was really a collaborative effort is not what being a part of a team is all about.  Does a football player win a game all by himself or does he rely on the other ten players on the field with him to bring the team to victory?  All too often I hear people use I statements to describe their work.  Politicians are famous for this yet how many people stop to question how a senator or representative single handedly passed a law, wrote a budget, or generally made the world a better place.  Really people?  You did this all by yourself?  Maybe I am missing something but the last time I checked the House of Representatives was comprised of more than one person with a majority of votes being required to pass anything.  How about becoming a team player and using we statements instead?  Its called collaboration or playing nice in the sandbox, skills we were all supposed to learn back in elementary school.

And being a team player is important on the home front as well.  This is especially important when it comes to parenting.  From the earliest age children learn the divide and conquer method of trying to persuade their parents to allow them to do something they probably shouldn't.  Whether it be dessert without finishing dinner, staying up later than his appointed bedtime, or getting a privilege that is normally off limits, our son is a master of going back and forth between the two of us trying to get one of us to agree with him.  Through trial and error and a fair amount of tears we've learned that only through being a united team will we prevail.  

And it really isn't that hard. All it takes is a shared goal, a cohesive plan of action, and an understanding that we are all in it together (whatever that together may be) and we can all be a part of a winning team.  So let's hear it for team work. WE can do it!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Family Ties

Two weeks ago Sidney and I went to the airport to pick up his Mimi and Grandpa (my parents).  To say he was excited puts it mildly.  As we walked across the parking lot and into the terminal Sidney told me that while talking to them on the computer (via Skype) is nice you can't hug the computer and all he wanted to do was hug Mimi and Grandpa for real.  And that is exactly what he did the moment they appeared through the security door.  After two years my little boy was finally able to hug his grandparents and he was beyond ecstatic.  (And judging by the picture on the left I'd say the feelings were mutual).  As they settled in Sidney quickly began calling them his "friends" and was their constant shadow wanting to show them his toys, books, and everything about his Albanian life. If one of them left the room Sidney sought them out but then again his grandfather did the same thing when Sidney disappeared for even the shortest amount of time.  It was heartwarming and at the same time caused me to question our own lifestyle choices.  Is it fair, that by choosing to live overseas, we're separating Sidney from his blood family and both sets of grandparents from their only grandchild?
We've tried hard to create a strong and supportive circle around Sidney.  I do think that it being "just the three of us" (his words) living so far away from family and friends we are a stronger family unit than we would have been if we were living back in the States.  Here in Albania we don't have cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents for immediate emotional or physical support so by default, we've cobbled together our own makeshift support network.  (But then again, Glenn and I have such small nuclear families and Sidney doesn't have any first cousins at all so maybe it wouldn't be so different if we were stateside.....).  Sidney's nanny and her husband are his "Albanian grandparents" and we do Skype with both sets of his real grandparents whenever possible.  These conversations are interactive but I know they aren't a substitute for the real thing.  While I know Sidney is having experiences that our living in the U.S. would never allow him to have, I still wonder whether our living overseas is robbing our son of an important part of his developmental process and of his childhood.
There is a phrase in the ex-pat community that describes children who are raised outside of their home country.  There is an ever growing body of literature and research that talks about these "third culture kids" or "global nomads".  Studies show that these children, raised in cultures outside of their own, have stronger family relationships, are more resilient, and have a better knack for learning foreign languages than children raised in a single culture.  Using my own little boy as an example, I completely agree with all of these findings.  The child is quick to invite a new child to play on the playground, is fluent in Albanian, and can recite the most minute details of flying internationally as if it is second nature to him.  However, this doesn't mean life is easier for these TCK children.  Constant changes, whether it be new houses, new schools, or new friends, are never easy.  It is never fun being the new kid and being the new kid every few years can take its toll.  Anxiety, a sense of not having roots, or a lack of identity are all traits that can plague a TCK.  Then, as demonstrated by my original concern, there is the lack of connection to one's own extended family.  Is knowing one's grandparents, aunts, and uncles exclusively through Internet communications enough for a growing child?  (I know that technology has made it so much easier to maintain family bonds than it was just a generation ago but there is no substitute for in-person interactions).   And what happens when these third culture kids try to assimilate back into their own communities of origin? 
These are all issues I worry about as we prepare to pack up again and move to a new foreign country where we will spend an additional three years.  With much resistance, we've begun the conversation about new houses, schools, and friends with Sidney and yet I know this won't be the last time we discuss this with him during his childhood.  It is a way of life that we have chosen and are now imposing on our son.  When we (finally?) return to the States, Sidney will be over seven years old, having spent all but the first year of his life living overseas, and know nothing of his country of origin.  He'll be an English, Albanian, and French speaking child who has never played on an American playground or run barefoot through a grass covered backyard, never experienced waking up Christmas morning surrounded by his grandparents, and never celebrated a birthday at Chuck-E-Cheese (well, maybe it won't be all bad after all...).  His grandparents will be that much older and will have missed out on experiencing so many of his childhood milestones that they might have been able to witness firsthand had we lived closer.  But Sidney will have travelled throughout most, if not all of the European countries, have international friends, and have made memories that he will be able to carry with him for the rest of his life. But upon returning to the U.S. Sidney will essentially be a foreigner in his own land and I can't decide if this is good, bad, or perhaps a little bit of both. 
In the meantime I'm going to cherish the memory of that airport greeting and hope it isn't another two years before we get to experience it again.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Snakes & Stones Of Butrint

We've visited a lot of ancient ruins during our time in Albania but the one that had eluded us to date is Butrint National Park.  Located in the southern most part of the country where Albania, Greece, and the Ionian Sea meet (with spectacular views of Corfu, Greece on a clear day), this ancient settlement dates back to the 8th century BC. Today's excavated ruins span over two thousand years from Hellenistic temples of the 4th Century to the defenses against the Ottoman Empire of the 19th century.  Like much of her Balkan counterparts, Butrint was at various times a thriving community, the scene of epic battles, and occupied by conquering forces.  It is referenced in Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid and was visited by Julius Caesar and Augustus.  During more modern times (19th century) it was a small fishing village and visited by foreign diplomats and tourists who were guests of Ali Pasha.  Excavation of the ruins by Italian archaeologists began in 1928, it was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, and became a 86 square kilometer national park in 2001. 
Now we hadn't not visited intentionally prior to our visit. On more than one occasion we had made plans to go but something always derailed them.  First there was the long weekend where it rained (and who wants to be tromping around ruins in wet weather?).  Then there was the time the major north-south route from Tirana to southern Albania closed because of the snow.  (The drive takes you along the coast and up through Llogara Pass providing travelers with sweeping views of both the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.  However, because of the elevation snow often closes the road).  Our next attempt was on a beautiful early June day when neither rain nor snow was in the forecast. I thought we were good to go.  And then I was told about the snakes. Yes, snakes.  Butrint is located in a rather swampy location in Albania and when you combine these conditions with warm weather and piles of old rocks and put them in a country with its share of snakes, both venomous and not, you have conditions that this snake-a-phobe is not willing to risk.  In 1959, before Albania severed her ties with the then Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev visited Albania and a tour of Butrint was on his itinerary.  In preparation for this visit a new road was constructed into the site of the ruins and local villagers used saucers of toxic milk to poison the thousands of venomous snakes who called the ruins home.  All I can say is eeewww!  There are apparently not as many snakes now as there were half a century ago, but just the mere mention of them, and a warning from a fellow snake fearing co-worker aborted our plans yet again. But then again, I'd rather be safe than sorry.
With family in town last week we finally made the trip south to Butrint.  The weather was perfectly clear and cool and because it was post-tourist season, we essentially had the park to ourselves.  The signs warning of snakes and bugs at ticket booth were a bit unnerving but I warned Sidney to stay on the marked paths and off we went.  The ruins were indeed impressive and we were able to walk through one century and into the next as we explored the surprisingly well maintained stone ruins.  Standing in the 3rd century BC amphitheater surrounded by pools of water was pretty amazing as was the the 6th century baptistery and the Great Basilica from the same period.  From the reconstructed 16th century Venetian castle situated at the top of the hill and Butrint's "high point", we had sweeping views of the bay and Corfu beyond.  Walking along the perimeter wall along the shoreline we saw shirtless fishermen smoking with their bamboo poles in the water and herds of sheep grazing along the opposite shore.  We also saw the uniquely Albanian car ferry transporting vehicles across the narrow channel.  For me, it was one of those "only in Albania" moments where decades and centuries collide in a single event.  The experience really was priceless and unforgettable. 

Gateway to the amphitheater

An archway with a view

The Grand Basilica

Corfu, Greece as a backdrop
And yes because we were in Butrint we saw one snake.  Granted it was only a small brown one we weren't able to identify as it slithered across the path in front of us, but the sighting was enough to freak me out.  And as our mosquito bitten faces and arms attested too, the bugs were prevalent as well.  The stories and signage were true but we had been warned.  I guess you could say we had a true Butrint experience after all.  But in the end the visit was well worth it, snakes and mosquitoes and all.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Child's Play

As adults leading busy lives it is sometimes all too easy to miss the subtle signs our children give us.   It takes stopping for a moment to realize what we are being told and when we figure it out, it can be heartbreaking.  And this is the message that our wise beyond his years, four year old sent to me this week.

Our schedules have been out of whack recently.  Between visiting family, a busier than normal work week for Glenn, and evening commitments taking both of us out of the house at night, our daily routine has been anything but the usual.  I know Sidney likes his schedule and predictability but I had no idea how much the upheaval was effecting him.  While Sidney seemed to love having his Mimi and Grandpa visiting their presence meant that his beloved nene (nanny) had the week off and with her went Sidney's normal daily schedule.  Sleep, eat, and play schedules were off kilter.  As the week progressed my normally cheerful little guy only grew angrier and sadder.  I thought a new week and a return to our (somewhat) usual schedule would return things to normal but instead they have only been getting worse.

For the past few nights Sidney has been waking and crying out for us.  When we go to him he says that he misses us and wants to make sure we are here but now that he knows we are here, he is OK and will immediately go back to sleep.  The other evening when it was just the two of us at home, he said he wanted to speak Albanian with me. Now this same child normally refuses to speak anything but English in our presence, proudly stating that he only speaks Albanian with his nene since his parents don't understand it.  Usually I do understand enough but after several failed attempts at my understanding him in his second language, he just gave up.  Then he asked me to come into his play room since he wanted to show me something.  And that something just about broke my heart.

Sidney had lined up all of this stuffed animals and proceeded to tell me stories (in English now) about them; those that looked alike were family while others were just friends.  We went through his entire collection identifying the relationships among them.  Then we got to the lone little white lamb.  First Sidney said that we needed to get a big lamb to keep the little one company.  Then he told me that this little lamb was so sad because he didn't know where his family was.  We needed to find his family so he could be happy.  When I suggested that maybe the lamb's family was away but would come home soon, with tears in his eyes Sidney adamantly informed me that this wasn't the case.  He told me that the lamb's mother was at the store buying things but his father got a phone call, left, and wasn't coming back.  My tears immediately matched his and through the lump in my throat I told Sidney that the lamb's father was indeed coming back.  (Actually, I slipped up and said Sidney's father was coming back but I was quickly corrected that it was the lamb who was missing his father not Sidney).  I found myself at a loss for words as I held my sad little boy.  No amount of self-help books and parenting blogs had prepared me for this.  As I struggled to find the right words Sidney continued.  He said the lamb has a father and mother and their family is just the three of them but that the parents are now missing.  He went on to add that when the three of them are together again they will all be happy. He then suggested that we try to find the lamb's mother and father.

And that is what we did.  I immediately ignored the ringing phone and turned off the computer.  Together we made pizza in Sidney's kitchen and cookies in mine.  Over the past couple of days invitations to non-essential activities have been declined and we are spending quality time together with "just the three of us" and this pattern will continue over the weekend.  Because a little lamb needs his family to be happy and it took an almost four year old to remind me of this.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Stick 'Em Up

I know some people will disagree with me on this issue, but I am a huge proponent of vaccines.  I've always received my vaccines, because Glenn is active duty he always receives his (I wish all employers could make their employees receive them), and Sidney has received his on schedule.  Granted, it is never pleasant to get stuck by a needle and holding a squirming child who is being pricked is far from my favorite experience, but in my opinion, the brief amount of pain far outweighs the alternative risks.  It amazes me that, thanks to today's modern medicine, many childhood (and adult) diseases that killed or permanently disabled hundreds of thousands of people less than a century ago have all but been eliminated.  And this is due in large part to the evolving science that is making so many medical advancements possible.  I had my share of childhood sicknesses and diseases but thanks to current vaccinations, my own son won't have to endure the severe outbreak of chicken pox or other bump inducing rashes that I suffered as a child.  But as the measles outbreak in Texas and the recent resurgence of polio in Syria attests to, just because outbreaks have dramatically decreased, it is still vitally important to get all of your vaccinations.  As these outbreaks demonstrate, in today's rapidly moving and transitory world, not getting vaccinated puts the entire globe at risk.
And speaking of vaccines, with flu season upon us, it is important to get your flu shot.  So why get vaccinated, you ask?  Here's a few facts courtesy of our awesome Embassy health unit:
  • The flu, or influenza, is a contagious viral infection that affects the upper respiratory system and can last for up to two weeks in healthy adults.
  • The flu is easily spread with most healthy adults able to infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick.
The financial impact of the flu is bigger than I ever imagined:
  • A CDC study found that parents of kids who got the flu lost between 7 and 19 hours of work during the illness and if the sick child was hospitalized, the number jumped to over 70 hours.
  • 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu-related complications each year.
  • $87.1 billion is lost from the U.S. economy annually because of the flu and its repercussions.
  • $16.3 billion is the annual toll on businesses due to the flu.
  • 70 million workdays were missed by Americans in 2011 because of the flu.
I've heard many people say they won't bother getting the vaccine for a variety of reasons.  And contrary to some statements, deadly epidemics like the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, are not a problem of the past. There are probably very few adults alive today who don't remember the recent avian and swine flu outbreaks.  As someone who was pregnant during the swine flu epidemic, I made sure I received vaccines for both the regular and swine flu.  My child and myself remained flu free that year.  Was it because of the vaccine?  Maybe or maybe not.  What I do know is that neither of us got sick and that is what really matters.  So why take the risk by not getting vaccinated?  You owe it to yourself, your family, and your community. 
Sidney and I are getting our shots this afternoon and Glenn will get his later this week. When will you get yours?

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Storied Desk

When we had visitors in town a couple of weeks ago we took them to Kruje.  Because of its convenient (by Albanian standards) proximity to Tirana and its mix of cultural, historical, and shopping opportunities, it is our "go-to" location to bring guests who are short on time but want to get out of the capital city.  We've been there too many times to count but usually walk away having bought at least one special item.  During one of our early visits we purchased a beautiful hand carved dowry chest from a local merchant and have returned to the furniture shop more than once to browse what the owner has in stock.  That had been our plan during our last trip.  After all, with only a few short months left before we depart Albania, our mission is to purge our household items rather than add to them.  But then we saw the desk..........

It was tucked away on the second floor of the shop and the minute Glenn saw it he came out to tell me that I needed to take a look at it.  From the double dove-tail drawers and locking cabinets to its ornately carved sides and mother-of-pearl inlays on the doors it was beautiful.  While there is clearly a front and a back, the rear side of the desk is as ornate as the front giving more options for placement in a room.  Lacking a tape measure it was difficult to judge just how big the desk was and it was dwarfed by the larger furniture in the room.  We both loved it for its sheer beauty but upon learning the supposed history of the desk we liked it all the more.

The desk in its temporary new home
According to the shop owner, the desk had been built for King Zog I of Albania who used it to furnish one of his many houses.  Born Ahmet Muhtar Zogolli in 1895, he was a descendant of Skanderbeg, Albania's national hero, and educated in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) during the final days of the reign of the Ottoman Empire.  In 1912 Zogolli was a signer of Albania's Declaration of Independence and fought for the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the first World War.  The 1920s found him serving in various capacities within the Albanian government and saw his family change their name to Zog since it sounded more Albanian.  In 1925 Zog was elected as the first president of Albania and became king in 1928 when Albania was transformed into a monarchy.  While king he married a countess who was half Hungarian and half American and reportedly survived 55 assassination attempts.  Reliance on Italian support during the 1930s and the eventual invasion of Mussolini's army led to the royal family fleeing into exile in 1939.  King Zog died in France in 1961 but his family's brief time as the head of the Albanian monarchy is an important part of long Albania's history.

Did this desk really belong to King Zog?  Who knows if the story is true but it sounded good and only added to the beauty of the desk.  And it is a truly beautiful piece of furniture.  We clearly hadn't set out to buy a piece of furniture during our little outing but we were tempted to take the plunge.  After all, we had discarded our old particle board computer desk when we moved from Norfolk and have been using an Embassy owned one here in Tirana.  After a little haggling we went to lunch then returned for some final negotiations.  Reaching an agreement we made arrangements for it to be delivered to our house.  Of course, it was only when it arrived this past weekend that I realized exactly how big it is. It is huge.  It fits a bit awkwardly in our current office/guest bedroom space but who knows where it will fit in our new Belgian house.  But it is ours and I love it. Now I just need to let the moving company know that we have increased the amount of weight we will need to be shipping!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

In Recognition Of Those Who Serve

Celebrating at the Marine's birthday ball
This has been a weekend dedicated to appreciating and recognizing the military past and present.  Last night we celebrated the 238th birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps by hosting a table of Albanian military officials at the annual Marine Corps Birthday Ball here in Tirana.  This was our third ball in Albania and from the venue and atmosphere to the food and our dinner companions, it was the best one yet.  The Marine Corps, perhaps more than the other branches of the service, is steeped in tradition and ceremony and that was once again on display last night.  I am moved each and every time I watch the precisely executed ceremony and hear the birthday greetings from the Commandant of the Marine Corps.  It never gets old and reminds me that the birthday ball signifies so much more than a big party and a reason to dress up.

We stayed out later than we intended to last night so getting moving this morning for the annual Remembrance Day ceremony hosted by the British Embassy was difficult.  However, as we stood in the damp air at the Commonwealth War Memorial surrounded by other military members, Albanian and international alike, and stood at attention in front of the somber white tombstones of Commonwealth soldiers, I was again reminded why we were there.  As the ceremony's emcee reminded us, taking time out from our busy schedules and standing in silence for two minutes is nothing compared to the ultimate sacrifice of the thirty-eight young men buried near us.  Without the sacrifices made by these sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers, it is likely that we wouldn't even have the opportunity to stand there.

Commonwealth Cemetery--Tirana,Albania
(A little bit of background information courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as to why there is a Commonwealth Cemetery in Albania:  "Following the end of the war in Europe, an Army Graves Registration Unit entered Albania with the task of concentrating the remains of Commonwealth Servicemen, lost in the struggle to secure Albanian freedom, into a site chosen in the capital, Tirana.  However, due to the political situation in the country, this task could not be completed, through 52 sets of remains were recovered in the short time available. Eventually, in 1955, after repeated requests to enter the country were refused, the Commission took the decision to commemorate the 38 casualties on special memorials erected in Phaleron War Cemetery in Greece.  The situation remained thus until 1994, when a change in the political situation in Albania allowed a Commission representative access for the first time.  He discovered that the original individual burials had moved by the Communist authorities to an unmarked collective grave located under a path near the university buildings in Tirana.  In the beginning of 1995, the 38 special memorials were removed from Phaleron and re-erected as close as possible to the site of the mass grave, in an area designated the Tirana Park Memorial Cemetery.  In 1998, following a study of the Graves Registration unit files, it was possible for the Commission's records staff to confirm the identities of a further seven casualties previously buried in Tirana War Cemetery as unknowns.")

And finally, tomorrow is American Veterans Day, the day we recognize and remember the veterans of all of our wars.  Not to be confused with Memorial Day which remembers our war dead, Veterans Day recognizes everyone who has served in the American Armed Forces.  Unlike many federal holidays in the United States, Veterans Day is always celebrated on the 11th of November rather than the Monday closest to the actual day.  It is a sheer coincidence that tomorrow happens to be a Monday and as such, we are in the midst of a three day long weekend.  For too many Americans, Veterans Day is just another day off from work and school, a day to hang out with friends and family, and a day to shop the holiday sales.  But this day is about so much more.  So tomorrow, please take a moment to stop and say thank you to a veteran.  It is only because of their sacrifice that we are able to enjoy the freedoms so many of us take for granted.  I know I will be giving my thanks and I hope you do too.