Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Going Out With A Bang

Today is New Year's Eve; the very last day and hours of the year 2013. As I sit here typing I am wondering exactly where the year went since it feels like I was just writing the same thing about 2012.  Time sure flies...............but back to the day at hand.
Whereas Christmas is a relatively new celebration in Albania, New Year celebrations are a very big deal here.  Family gatherings, food, and fireworks are the hallmark of an Albanian New Year's celebration and if the recent doings are any indication, this year's festivities are going to be more "spectacular" than last.  Similar to the last two weeks of August when Albanians abroad return to their motherland en mass, Albanians have been once again returning in large numbers.  You can see it on the streets, in the stores, and in the restaurants and cafes.  In many respects Albania and Albanians have a lot to celebrate this year so this year's celebration feels like it will be bigger than ever.
Flying back from Rome on Sunday our plane was full.  So full in fact, that passengers were having to hold their carry on luggage on their laps or stow suitcases under their feet---not under their seats but under their feet.  (Don't even get me started on the safety aspect of all of this Alitalia).  The airport itself was crowded in a way I have never seen before.  Everyone jokes that in Albania if someone is arriving on an airplane the entire extended family goes to greet them and this appeared to be the case.  Talk about a mob scene; there were men, women, and children everywhere.  The crowds extended to the grocery stores yesterday where the scene in the local Carrefour was reminiscent of American stores on Black Friday.  The produce section of the store was such chaos that at times, I feared for my own safety.  Hoards of people were jostling and pushing their way through the aisles in such a manner that I cut my shopping excursion short and went home.  While there were items I needed, I just didn't have the stamina to jump into the fray.  (On a semi-related note, I found it ironic that two women in Northern Virginia are now wanted for assaulting a fellow shopper after an altercation ensured over cutting in line at a shopping mall.  In Albania, every shopping excursion is a contact activity with pushing, shoving, and jostling to the head of the "line" being the norm). 
And then we have the fireworks......Fireworks, like so many other things in Albania, are not regulated meaning anyone and everyone has easy access to these potentially dangerous explosives.  Fireworks are the customary conclusion to summer wedding celebrations then they make a reappearance at New Year's.  This year, more so than in previous ones, we have noticed their reappearance in the weeks leading up to the end of the year.  Back in mid November, the neighborhood youth, (or the bored and disenfranchised young men a.k.a. thugs), began shooting off firecrackers up and down our street.  A few were small pops but increasingly they have been loud and smoky explosions. On more than one occasion exploding firecrackers have been tossed against and over our wall, filling our yard with plumes of sulfuric smoke.  These explosions have become such a common occurrence that I almost don't notice them.  Almost that is, since their deafening noise when they hit too close to our house is enough to wake Sidney from his sleep and prevent his parents from falling asleep.  
So this brings us to today and tonight.  The young men are already at it and shooting off firecrackers.  They even threw a few in my directions as I walked home today. This time they have some young (8-10 year old) children tagging along behind them whom they send in to investigate the firecrackers when they doesn't explode.  I've gotten to the point where I'm afraid to look outside lest I see a child or adult get hurt by an explosion.  (I'm not sure what is more irritating, kids throwing firecrackers or grown men doing it).  As day turns to night I'm sure it is going to be an ever increasing chaotic scene on our street.  Last year a bonfire made of trash and debris was lit in the middle of the street and as I saw the makings of one when I returned home earlier, that is something else we can look forward to this evening.  If last year is any indication, as midnight approaches we are likely to see just as many red chaser rounds as actual fireworks.  Yes, the shooting of guns into the air is often a substitute for launching fireworks.  This is one of the many reasons we are advised to lay low and avoid crowds. 
As has become our tradition here in Albania, my family will do just that.  We'll hang out drinking bubbly and snacking on nibblies before bundling up and watching the loud and colorful spectacle unfold from the safety of our covered third floor balcony.  Once again we'll watch the grandmother living across the street climb to her rooftop to shoot off her family's fireworks and we'll hope that the residents of the house to our left shoot theirs away from us instead of in our direction.  (Being a two story house, their roof puts our third floor directly in the line of fire for whatever they are throwing).  Shortly after midnight the spectacle will (hopefully) end and the smoke will mostly clear by morning.  And when we awake tomorrow it will be 2014; a new year with new opportunities and challenges.  Bring it on.
And just so you can see what I am talking about, below are a few pictures (as viewed from our balcony) from the celebrations of previous years:

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Show A Little Compassion

Although neither is likely to ever read this, today's post is directed to two separate fellow travelers.  First, to the harried mother with the screaming child on the early flight to Rome, don't worry or feel bad.  I've been there and done that with an 18 month old Sidney crying non-stop from Boston to Rome.  I vividly remember the glares from fellow passengers and the arrogant man sitting behind me who hit my seat with full force whenever I tried to recline---which was the only position that comforted Sidney in the least.  (If you want to have space then open your wallet and buy a bigger seat instead of expecting luxury in economy).  To this mom, I know you were doing the best you could to hush your inconsolable baby but nothing was working.  Your distress was obvious and I completely felt your pain.  As a wise, well traveled friend once told me, it is unlikely that you will ever see any of us again so don't feel embarrassed.  Rather, forget about the incident and move on hoping that the next flight is easier for both you and your baby.

Now to the huffy unpleasant woman sitting across the aisle from us:  this message is to you.  Just because you were still feeling the ramifications of a too late night is no reason to glare, snap, or yell at the poor woman sitting across from you.  She was obviously doing the best she could to calm her baby and your yelling and stomping up and down the aisle did nothing to ease the situation.  In fact, your tantrum was worse than that of the baby's.  At first I dismissed you as hung over Euro-trash but once you opened your mouth I realized that you were in fact a fellow American.  Alas, it has been quite some time since I was so embarrassed by an American's behavior.  Your actions give new meaning to the phrase "the ugly American".

Why is it that people look with such distain on babies flying on airplanes?  Maybe the noise doesn't bother me because I am just grateful that it isn't my child who is screaming but I always feel the pain of other parents.  But if the child's parents are actively trying to calm them don't make the situation worse.  If you are going to focus your unpleasant energies on someone why not focus on the burping and farting man sitting in front if you whose ripe aroma I found to be more offensive than the crying.  Or the woman throwing her trash on the floor or the man actively ignoring the flight attendant's instructions to turn off his cell phone.  All of this bad behavior was being conducted by adults within your sight  but you chose to focus on the helpless baby.  Really?  But then again, you showed up for you flight clearly unbathed, dressed for clubbing, and with a bad attitude.  Perhaps you just got what you deserved.....

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Believing In The Magic

Yesterday, more than ever before, I came to understand the true joy that comes from observing something from a child's perspective.  As a mother, the weeks and days leading up to Christmas are over scheduled, chaotic, and anything but relaxing.  (Note to parents everywhere.....no matter how pretty it may look, buying the glitter covered wrapping paper is never a good idea.  However, it is a very good idea to have an extra stash of tape on hand).  But seeing Sidney's excitement over the prospect of Santa's visit followed by the look on his face when he realized that Santa did indeed come makes every moment of the chaos worth it.

This was a Christmas of firsts for us.  Primarily, this was the first Christmas that we actually celebrated in our own home.  When we were stateside, holidays were split between our own two families meaning we saw more of Interstate 95 than we did our Christmas tree.  Our previous two Albanian Christmases involved hotel rooms in other cities.  While it was wonderful to experience Christmas markets, live nativity scenes and outdoor concerts, these holidays just never truly felt like Christmas.  This year, sitting in front of our own tree in the comfort of our own home, it finally did.

And most importantly, this year, at age four, Sidney was an active participant in so many of the activities leading up to Christmas itself.  Opening each box on his chocolate filled advent calendar became a daily ritual in the days leading up to yesterday.  Sidney helped decorate the tree and hang the lights, squealing with excitement when they finally illuminated the room.  With each decoration that went on the tree I was able to share my own childhood Christmas memories with him.  Christmas Eve found the two of us preparing dinner together then plotting Santa's snack.  When I first suggested to Sidney that he might want to leave a snack for Santa and his reindeer, he got all serious.  Sidney decided that just any plate wouldn't do and instead selected a holiday themed one from the cabinet.  When I asked him what snack Santa would like, he pondered the question for some time before stating "spicy chips" (Sidney's personal favorite at the moment).  Over the course of the evening the snack menu changed until Sidney finally settled on chocolate cookies for Santa and a carrot for his reindeer.  His excitement at selecting each cookie before carefully putting it on the plate was simply contagious.  Bedtime, framed around needing to go to sleep before Santa arrived, complete with a reading of Twas the Night Before Christmas and the spotting of Santa's sleigh in the distance (a.k.a. the light of a passing airplane), only added to the anticipation of what was to come.

And then we had Christmas morning itself.  Sidney's eyes lit up at the sight of his overflowing stocking and the pile of presents under the tree.  He took the task of unwrapping seriously and the meticulous care he took in opening each item item was in complete contrast to the excitement of discovering what was inside.  Books and a new winter jacket were met with the same level of excitement as the make your own sandwich kit and the toy aircraft carrier.  Throughout it all Sidney kept repeating that Santa was so nice for bringing him presents.  Hearing and seeing his excitement and witnessing his unparalleled belief in Santa made all of the chaos leading up to Christmas worth it.  And, it made me a believer in the magic of Mr. Claus.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: One Of My Favorite Albanian Scenes

As I wind down to my final few weeks in Albania, I've been revisiting some of my favorite pictures from our time here.

And here is one of them:

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Last Chance

Tis the season of sales......or so it would seem judging by the traffic in my email in box recently.  Advertising emails have apparently replaced old fashioned paper junk mail but the intent is the same.  It seems as though not a minute or two can go by without a new offer for a must-have, last minute item appearing before me on my computer screen. From sweaters and mass produced jewelry to electronics and snow blowers, it is all on sale "for today only".  Really? I've lost track of the number of final offers that reappear under the headlines of "sale extended" the next day.  And of course everyone is offering free shipping with a guaranteed delivery by Christmas Day. Maybe I am too cynical but it seems as though mass consumerism has taken over the holidays with no celebration being complete without a towering pile of wrapped, but unneeded items sitting under the tree.  Do we really need more stuff?
And now it is Christmas Eve and I once again woke to find my inbox filled with more promotions for even more last minute deals.  I suppose with Christmas itself being mere hours away the end is in sight (but I'm also receiving post Christmas sale notices now).  I know I am a planner but how is it that with Christmas sales starting in November and stores opening on Thanksgiving Day, that people are still shopping at the last minute.  Are their gift giving lists that big, do they simply procrastinate, or are they holding out hope for an even bigger and better last minute deal?  Who are these shoppers anyway and more importantly, who are they buying these special gifts for?
Perhaps it is physical distance from the American holiday shopping chaos that is allowing me to be so cynical.  I haven't stepped foot in an American shopping mall in years and have only ventured into the Albanian ones a handful of times under complete duress.  Relying on a restrictive mail system that can take any where from two to six weeks to deliver packages from the US to Albania means that any online shopping I planned on doing had to be completed long before the Thanksgiving / Black Friday shopping frenzy.  So attention Target, Gap, Williams Sonoma, Amazon, and everyone else who has been spamming my inbox with deals, these offers are totally lost on me.  While I have yet to wrap the few gifts we exchange, they were purchased and received months ago.  That means that instead of taking part in the feeding frenzy we've been decorating our house, baking holiday goodies, and spending time together as a family.  And that is what this season should be about.
Merry Christmas everyone!

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Top 10 Reasons You Should Visit Albania

I dare say that Albania is becoming trendy.  For two years running Lonely Planet has been naming Albania as a top tourist destination.  The New York Times' Frugal Traveler has touted the virtues of visiting Albania.  More recently Yomadic has listed the entire country as one of the hottest European destinations to visit in 2014.  It appears that the rest of the world is catching on to what those of us who have visited (or live here), already know.  Last week I wrote about a piece I had written for Expats Blog.com's annual blog awards contest.  The votes are in and this blog has been voted number one out of the one (insert sarcasm here) Albanian blog entries.  Seriously though......  Thanks to all who voted for me.  In case you didn't get a chance to read my entry on the Expats blog.com website, you can read it here.

Albania......You think you've heard of it but aren't exactly sure where it is.  Perhaps you have heard of it but thought westerners couldn't visit.  Or maybe you've heard it referenced in movies such as Wag the Dog, The Manchurian Candidate, and Twins but haven't given it much more thought.  These are just a few of the many questions I've been asked about Albania in the 2 1/2 years I've been living here.  I'll admit, when my husband first told me that we were moving to Albania, I asked myself some the very same questions.  But since we've been here I've found answers to these questions as well as a slew more.

First, to answer the original questions:  Albania is located across the Adriatic Sea from Italy.  North of Greece, west of Kosovo and Macedonia and south of Montenegro, visiting this tiny Balkan nation is an experience like no other.  And yes, there was a period of self-imposed isolationism during the mid- twentieth century when Albania's borders were closed to the outside world.  Since the fall of Communism in 1991, however, the borders have been open to foreigners and they are coming.  Albania is a member of NATO and engaged in a campaign to become the newest member of the European Union.  The country is dirt poor in terms of economic wealth but is rich in heritage, culture, and spirit.  The reasons to visit are many so check out some of the reasons you should come, buy your ticket, and come visit.

The top ten reasons you should visit Albania:

The ancient ruins:  You can visit UNESCO World Heritage sites and other ancient ruins without having to deal with crowds.  In fact, I don't think I've ever encountered a line at any of the historic ruins we've visited.  In Albania you can visit everything from 13th century towns to 7th century ruins for mere pennies and often be the only ones visiting.  Some of my favorite spots here in Albania include the ancient cities of ApolloniaBylis, and Butrint.  And only in Albania can you receive a guided tour of the largest amphitheater in the Balkans by one of the archaeologists who actually excavated the site. These sites might not be as famous as Italy's Pompeii or Greece's Acropolis but they are impressive in their own right and worth a visit.

Castles, castles, and more castles:  Albania has lots of castles.  They are more Nancy Drew mystery than Cinderella but their sturdy stone foundations are as solid as the Albanian people themselves.  Today some are little more than stone foundations while others are well preserved historic sites but all speak to Albania's long and storied past. They are located atop hills, along the Adriatic shores, or even in the middle of fields. Some are filled with museums, cafes, and vendors selling trinkets while others are simply grassy areas where sheep graze.  Regardless of which castle you visit you will be stepping back into an important part of Albania's history.  Just think about the work that went into erecting these masterpieces that have withstood the test of weather and time.

Diverse geography:  Do you like the mountains?  How about the beach?  Or perhaps mountains that plunge into the sea.  Regardless of where you are in Albania, you are within a few hours of all of her diverse biospheres.  Visiting the villages of the northern Albanian Alps is like going back in time.  Two of my favorite are Thethi and Valbona.  A visit to Thethi is like taking a trip to a land that time has forgotten.  If you want to really see the stars at night you only need to spend a summer evening staring at the sky from a place that truly has zero ambient light.  It is breathtaking.  And despite the snakes and bugs that inhabit both places, I'd go back there in a heartbeat.  If the sea is your preferred vacation spot I highly recommend the Ionian seaside village of Dhermi.  Located along the Albanian Rivera, the crystal clear waters of Dhermi are sure to relax and refresh you.  Visit in June or September and you will have the pebble filled beaches and warm water all to yourself.

Remnants of Communist past History is often ugly, making societies want to suppress the unpleasantness and focus only on the positive.  I believe this is a mistake because in order to know where we are going we need to know where we have been.  As such, it is important to recognize even the ugliest parts of a country's history.  Albania's Communist period is one such time that many would like to forget but it is impossible to do so since reminders are literally right in your face.  From the characteristically blocky architecture to the solemn faced monuments, the past is alive.  While not quite embracing her recent past, it appears that Albania is at least beginning to acknowledge it.  A museum dedicated to Albania's Communist period is slated to open in the northern city of Shkoder in the near future.  This museum will join a poignant pictorial at Albania's National History Museum and as well as an outdoor exhibit here in Tirana.  For more on Albania's Communist past, see the bunkers discussion below.

Bunkers:  Once upon a time Albania was ruled by a slightly paranoid dictator named Enver Hoxha.  A vital part of his national defense system was the construction of over 700,000 concrete bunkers.  Strategically located throughout the country as Albania's first line of defense against the invading armies that never came, these concrete mushrooms were said to be indestructible.  Today the bunkers are perhaps the most visible reminder of Albania's Communist past with many still dotting the shores and hillsides, city blocks and the front yards of private houses.  Some of the remaining bunkers are concrete hulks that have been stripped of their iron while others are intact and have been splashed with colorful coats of paint.  Others remain concrete gray as they silently stand guard watching the world go by.

Religious freedom: Albania is an extremely religiously tolerant society with Christianity and Islam peacefully co-existing side by side.  Religion runs parallel to the country's history and development with many of her early settlements being built as religious centers for the region.  When Hoxha declared  Albania an atheist state in 1967, the public practice of religion ceased.  Churches were converted into government storage facilities but fortunately many of the most valuable religious icons were spared.  A generation of Albanians was raised without a deep religious identity which has resulted in many Albanians claiming a religion in name only. Today the census says that 59% of the country identifies as Muslim and 17% as Christian.  I regularly hear the call to prayer and see crowds filling the Catholic cathedral each Sunday.  Orthodox churches do the hillsides in both the northern and southern parts of the country.  Coming from a society where religion is so polarizing, it is refreshing to live in a place where one's religion isn't worn on their sleeve and individuals are free to worship (or not) as they please.  

National pride:  Albanians have a deep national pride that is evident where ever you look.  They know their history dating back to ancient times, have museums, squares, and streets dedicated to their national hero Skanderbeg, and proudly wave their red and black double headed eagle flag whenever the opportunity arises.  The best example of the intense national pride came last November when Albania celebrated a century of independence.  In the days and weeks leading up to the 28th of November celebrations, red and black was everywhere.  New double headed eagle statues were erected, flags were hung from every telephone wire and apartment block window, and car hoods were repainted with the country's flag.  Everywhere I looked all I saw was a sea of red and black.  The culmination of the Independence Day festivities was giant cake that was entered the Guinness Book of World Records.  You can see the cake for yourself here.

Unique transportation system:  Albania's transportation system is simultaneously archaic, developing, and modern. There is a rickety train system that stops at the borders and ferries that transport passengers in the most primitive of ways.  Everyone seems to drive in Albania but driving is not for the faint of heart.  From newly asphalt covered highways and stalled construction projects to pothole filled dirt paths and ancient cobblestone covered roads, you can drive on all of them here.  On a single trip down the road you may encounter buses from another era, hundred thousand dollar vehicles,  old Mercedes,  furgons, and donkey carts.  Drive down the road during the early morning or evening hours and you'll see babushka wearing women clutching pocketbooks standing along the road shoulders just waiting for a furgon to stop and pick them up. You are just as apt to see shepherds guiding their flocks along the highway as you are entire families riding on a single motor scooter.  You never know what you will encounter as you round the corner but if you aren't fussy about your mode of transportation you really can get just about anywhere in Albania.

Dental tourism:  I kid you not.  Upon arriving in Albania I immediately noticed the large number of dental clinics that appeared to be located on every street corner in every city and town.  Even the smallest of hamlets seems to have a resident dentist.  Not all of the clinics looked clear or modern but they were there none the less.  From young to old, the majority of Albanians I have met all have perfect sets of teeth.  (This is especially true in the more urban areas).  Even my nanny sports a bright white set of implants.  I am a product of years of orthodontic work myself and have what I consider nice teeth.  However, I have a fear of the dentist and dread going unless it is absolutely necessary.  But after chipping a tooth I found myself sitting in an Albanian dental chair.  Not only did I survive but I would return if I had to.  So I can now attest to Albania's thriving dental industry.  So if you need quality and affordable dental work done, combine a dental visit with a vacation and come to Albania.

The produce:  I'm a foodie so I was excited to discover the never ending supply of fresh produce that fills the markets and roadside fruit and vegetable stands. Farmers and restaurants brag about their produce being organic and all natural which is due largely in part to their inability to afford chemicals and fertilizers.  Rather than being a detriment, this makes the produce taste even better.  Everything is local, fresh, and seasonal so I quickly learned that when you see it you must buy it because it just might not be there next week.  While it has been fun to discover fruits and vegetables that are unique to this part of the world my favorite Mediterranean treats remain fresh figs and olives.  In season, they are plentiful but grab them while you can since once they are gone you must wait until next year.

So come visit Albania.  It is a country where old meets new on a daily basis.  Your trip is sure to be an adventure and I promise that you won't be disappointed.

Friday, December 20, 2013

I Count Myself Lucky

Yesterday's post was all about excessivism, perceived privilege and the all that is wrong in the world. Today's post is a reminder that there is (a lot) of good out there and a reminder about the importance of each and everyone of us counting our blessings and being grateful for what we have and can share with others.  For me, this is the real meaning of the holiday season.
Earlier this week I had the opportunity to accompany some of our Marines stationed here in Tirana on their annual delivery of gifts that had been collected through their Toys for Tots charity drive.  (Regular readers of my blog will know that I absolutely love this program).  This year's recipient organization was a group home and day drop in center for disabled children and young adults located in northern Albania.  Even in the United States, disabled or differently abled, individuals tend to be marginalized by mainstream society but this appears to be an even larger problem here in Albania.  In my experience, Albania and Albanians are all about striving to fit in and to conform with the perceived "norm" so anything or anyone that looks different, acts different, or speaks different is usually shunned, or even worse, initially approached with uncomfortable and inappropriate curiosity before being cast aside.  Additionally, Albania is a difficult country for even the most mobile of people to maneuver through so I can only imagine how virtually impossible it would be for someone with a physical handicap to get around.  Perhaps this is why I rarely see people in wheelchairs or walkers.  Unfortunately, however, I believe that a more likely reason is that disabled people get shuttered away and out of sight.  After all, it happens in the western world so why wouldn't it happen here?  I've asked numerous Albanians on repeated occasions about the care and services that are available to Albania's disabled population.  The responses I've received have ranged from people not knowing anyone who is disabled, to it not being a problem (really?) or it just being too upsetting to think or talk about so they choose not to.  For me, this speaks to the crux of the problem. If out of sight is out of mind, then anything deemed to be different is all too easy to ignore.
And all of this is why our trip earlier this week was so special.  This home had close to 100 clients with a wide range of diagnosis ranging from physical to psychological utilizing their services. Approximately half were day clients while the others resided there on a full time basis.  While the center was clean with (what appeared to be) freshly painted walls and was obviously decorated for the visiting Americans, there was a noticeable lack of heat in the building.  Heating units were attached to many of the walls but they obviously were not working and didn't appear like they had for some time.  Unfortunately this isn't uncommon in Albania but with it being December in northern Albania, it was colder inside the concrete building than out.  Some of the activity rooms were heated with small electric heaters (that appeared suspiciously new) but the rest of the building was cold.  Staff and residents alike were bundled up in multiple layers of clothing which included scarves and winter coats.  The staff were cheerful and appeared to be engaged with the few residents we saw, but the overall atmosphere simply made me sad.  As I stood there and observed what was going on around me, I realized just how lucky I am.   Not only do I have my health but I have the resources to take care of myself and my family both on a daily basis but also should a crisis arise. I have ready access to the heat, food, medicine and other necessities that I require.  Clearly not everyone is this fortunate.
But just when I was beginning to feel really blue a wonderful thing happened.  Our Santa Claus arrived and started to distribute individually wrapped gifts*** to each of the residents.  Many of the gifts were actually quite simple--puzzles, stuffed animals, hat, scarf, and mitten sets-- but each was received with broad smiles, open arms and so much appreciation that it brought tears to my eyes.  The pure joy expressed on the faces of these children and young adults reminded me that the simplest of gestures can go a long way.  Forget the high priced I-Pads and X-Boxes that so many American children will find under their trees this year; for these Albanian children the small gifts they received courtesy of Toys for Tots are just as, if not more, appreciated than the fancy electronics gifted to more affluent children.  The sight of a young man trying on his first sport coat was unbelievably moving as was the simple hand held bell that caused a girl to get up and dance.  It was in that moment that I was reminded what the holidays are all about and I just wish more people would stop, step back, and remember this.  While Christmas has turned into a commercialized nightmare for too many people, a simple gift and a bit of love is all some people ask for.  For me, Christmas is about caring and giving of oneself to both your loved ones and those who are less fortunate than yourself.  And again, I am reminded about exactly how lucky I am.
***Through the generosity of the staff and families at the Embassy, we were also able to donate over 600 pieces of warm clothing, blankets, and linens as well as personal hygiene items to the residents of the center. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Curse Of Affluenza

We all know about influenza and the vaccine that can help fend off the attack of these nasty, often debilitating germs. But what about affluenza?  Who has ever heard of this and further more, is anyone aware of a cure for it?  I'll admit, affluenza is a new term for me as it probably is for many people.  It shot into the news headlines over the past week when a teenager in Texas used affluenza as an excuse for his drinking, driving, and killing of four innocent people.  So what is affluenza?  According to this young man's highly paid attorney, his affluenza is the result of his parents giving him "freedoms no young person should have....where his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences."  A psychologist called as a defense witness blamed the teen's actions on "growing up in a household where the parents were preoccupied with arguments that lead to divorce." The affluenza defense initially worked and the teen was placed on probation for ten years and sent to off for self funded (by daddy warbucks) rehabilitation in a fancy California treatment center.  The sentencing caused an uproar whose repercussions are likely to be battled out in Texas courts for some time.  But for me the bigger question is "Are you kidding me?".  When did being rich and spoiled become a get out of jail card (literally)?  Or perhaps it has always been this way.
It seems as though Hollywood stars have been getting away with bad behavior for some time. How many times have the likes of Lindsey Lohan and Brittany Spears been in the news for excessive behaviors that the rest of us mere mortals would be locked up for?  Alec Baldwin and Kanye West getting into altercations with the paparazzi or anyone else getting in their way?  Another almost normal occurrence.  But (as far as I know) none of these actions have resulted in the deaths of four innocent people the way the sixteen year old's  did. 
All of these actions, however, beg the question of whether we have become a society without consequences.  When did taking personal responsibility for one's actions become a thing of the past?  Apparently this Texas teenager isn't personally responsible for his actions because of the environment he grew up in.  Somehow I doubt the same holds true for the teenager from the inner city projects who kills someone in a drive-by shooting.  If being rich and spoiled is an alibi, shouldn't being poor and impoverished be as well?  Or perhaps they both need to be held accountable and have to deal with the consequences.  The highly paid attorney is arguing that his parents never taught him right from wrong; so perhaps his parents need to be held accountable.  His father may be shelling out $450,000 plus a year for "rehab" but perhaps some time in jail would be more meaningful.  After all, the whole premise behind the affluenza argument is that the teen was taught that money can buy you anything.  And if this is the lesson that his parents taught them, it appears that they were right.  I find this all so discouraging and it begs the question of what does this really say about our society? 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: One Of My Favorite Albanian Scenes

As I wind down to my final few weeks in Albania, I've been revisiting some of my favorite pictures from our time here.

And here is one of them:

Looking south where the Adriatic meets the Ionian

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Vote For Albania, Vote For Me

You may have noticed two icons on the right of this page; a blue and white one that says "Expat Blogs" and a turquoise and white one that says "Expat Blog Awards 2013".  By clicking either of them you enter into a vast world of expat bloggers located all around the globe.  We are of hundreds of nationalities, are located on six of the seven continents and we all write about our experiences living abroad.  The annual blog awards are a way of showcasing the best of what the international blogging world has to offer.  And although my blog has been around for over two years, this is the first time I've entered the Expat Blog Awards writing contest.  For this year's contest we were challenged to submit a top list for our country.  Submissions could be funny or serious, long, short and everything in between with the singular intent of highlighting our adopted countries.  I took one look at this and thought game on!

As our time in Albania winds down to mere days I've been reflecting back on the past thirty months since we boarded the airplane in Washington D.C. bound for the Albanian unknown.  In hindsight we were clueless about what the future held for us.  Our time in Albania hasn't always been easy but it has always been an adventure.  We've visited places I never dreamed of, had experiences that we will remember for a life time, and grown closer as a family.  We've made life long friends and seen things that just make us shake our heads.  Albania is a quirky place that grows on you and as such, I've compiled my experiences into The Top 10 Reasons You Should Visit Albania.

Now I happen to be the only blogger listed from Albania but please don't let that disuade you from what I'm about to ask next.  Please click here to access the Expat Blog Awards 2013 entry page.  Because the entries are listed alphabetically, I'm the first one!  In order to accumulate votes I need you to read my entry then leave a comment of 10 words or more. If you feel so inspired you can like or share the entry on Facebook or Twitter to help me garner even more votes.   Time is short so please vote by December 20th and then look for my actual entry on this blog in the near future.  Because pesky spammers are the bane of a bloggers existence, all comments will be verified so if this the first time you are commenting on an Expats Blog blog, please check your inbox.  And while you are visiting the contest page, check out some of the other entries.  There really is an amazing world out there and bloggers are capturing all of it.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Cult Of Lemoncello

Last night was the first of what will become many of our "lasts" over the next few weeks.  It was our final monthly social dinner with the military attache group here in Tirana.  For the past thirty months we've been gathering on a (mostly) monthly basis to have dinner as a group in a more relaxed and social atmosphere. (Of course, in an environment where we are all always "on the clock", not working and being relaxed is all relative but in theory this is what we do).  And I have to admit, over time, I've come to rather enjoy these eclectic get togethers.  We are always an odd hodge-podge of internationals and Albanians from our respective military communities. We are singles and couples, with children and without, who share a meal together.   We eat a lot and drink even more but through this friendships have formed.  While the food, location, and even people around the table have changed, the speeches, numerous toasts, and after dinner drink of choice remains the same.  While a few people opt to end the meal with Albania's national fire water called raki, lemoncello seems to have become the official drink of choice amongst this international group.  How did this come to be?  I dare say, it was the influence of the Americans.
I discovered lemoncello on my first trip to Italy and immediately fell in love with this tart bright yellow liqueur.  It is the perfect ending to a meal and I returned home determined to find it in the States.  When that task proved to have a hit or miss success rate, I decided that I would simply make it myself.  Soon I was making lemoncello for friends, giving it as gifts and serving it at all of our dinners.  We carried our love of lemoncello with us to Albania (even bringing cases of the alcohol base with us in our household goods) and began introducing it to guests in our home.  Despite Albania's close proximity to Italy, we discovered that many of our guests had either never tried or even heard of the drink.  When serving those who were familiar with it, I was initially nervous.  I mean, I liked my recipe but what if others didn't?  When the Italian general in our group gave it his seal of approval, I knew it really must be good.  Soon I found myself being known for my lemoncello; people asked about it and on more than one occasion I shared my recipe with people who wanted to make it themselves. 
Now back to our monthly dinners.  Shot glasses filled with raki used to arrive at the end of each dinner.  One night, knowing of the Italian general's love of lemoncello, Glenn asked the waiter for two glasses of the yellow drink instead of the usual fire water.  Others at the table were curious but sipped their raki.  The next month a few more people joined in with a round of lemoncello.  Now lemoncello was always the final drink at our dinners and those hosted by the Italians.  Before long however, lemoncello began appearing at the end of every attache dinner.  It is now a tradition amongst the military attache corp and it appears that this potent lemon drink will be our legacy.  But I suppose there are much worse things that we could be remembered by.
And you too can make lemoncello at home.  Check out my recipe here

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: One Of My Favorite Albanian Scenes

As I wind down to my final few weeks in Albania, I've been revisiting some of my favorite pictures from our time here.

And here is one of them:

Sun, clouds, and rain over Corfu, Greece (as seen from Saranda)

Monday, December 9, 2013

When The Statue Came Tumbling Down

So what happens when upset citizens cause a statue to come tumbling down?

Hungary- 1956

Germany- 1989 (not a statue but the idea is the same)

Albania- 1990

Iraq- 2003

Arab Spring- 2011

Ukraine- December 2013

Does anything change?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

(Perceived) Importance

Important:  Having serious meaning or worth; deserving or requiring serious attention.*
Importance:  The quality or state of being important.*

What does it mean to be important and what makes someone or something more important than the next person or thing?  Does level of importance equate to social status?  Is someone important because others say they are or because people decide for themselves that they are important?  A date or event deemed important to one community might be irrelevant to the next.  Isn't importance all relevant to the context in which the label is being applied?
We all have various levels of importance but just how important each of us are at any given time really depends upon the circumstances and the environment.  As a parent you are important to your children but how important you are to your loved ones carries little weight in the workplace.  Just because your Mamma says you are awesome and important doesn't mean your boss has to agree.  In the professional arena you might be important in your company but how does your status in the office carry any weight at home or in your non-professional social circles?  Does having people at your beck and call at work exempt you from walking the dog and taking out the trash at home?  Does it mean you don't have to obey the speed limit when driving or grant you an exemption from abiding by the bi-laws of your homeowners association?  It would appear that some people seem to think this is the case.

Politics is an arena that really makes me think about all of this.  It seems to be a universally held belief that if you are an elected official or a political appointee, you are deemed important.  But important to whom?  The people who elected or appointed you?  What about those who specifically did not cast their votes in your favor; are you still important to them?  Does the importance of being a small town mayor or tribal leader in your community carry any weight in the larger context of society?  If you are deemed important by virtue of a political appointment in your village does that carry any level of significance in a larger city, your country, or the world as a whole?  Does being a minister in Monkobania make you important to anyone other than the residents of your tiny nation?  And what happens when you are no longer holding office.  Does your importance still hold strong or do you go back to waiting your turn in line and washing the dinner dishes?

And so I find myself returning to my original questions.  What does it mean to be important and isn't importance all relative?

* Definitions are from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Do You Believe?

Karma.  Its the universal belief of cause and effect.  It is one's self directed destiny.  What goes around, comes around.  For every action there is a reaction.  If you do good, you will reap good; if you do bad, well.........

Karma is a core belief of many eastern religions.  In Hinduism and Buddhism, karma is the sum of a person's actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their future fate.  Its all about what an individual has done, is doing, and will do in the future.  Maybe an individual thinks they are getting away with something now but if you believe in karma, you believe it will eventually catch up with them.  Maybe not today but perhaps tomorrow, next week, or even next year.

  • "When you see a good person, think of becoming like her/him.  When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weak points."

                                        ~ Confucius

  • "How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours."

                                       ~Wayne W. Dyer

  • "Is fate getting what you deserve, or deserving what you get?"

                                       ~ Jodi Picoult, Vanishing Acts

  • "You cannot control the results, only your actions.."
                                        ~ Allan Lokos, Patience:  The Art of Peaceful Living

  • "If you're really a mean person you're going to come back as a fly and eat poop." 

                                        ~ Kurt Cobain

Karma.  Do you believe?  I do.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Charitable Giving

Tis the season for charitable giving.  From the red Salvation Army kettles manned by bell ringers that greet you at the entrance of just about every big box store, shopping mall, or supermarket to the food and clothing donation boxes in workplace lobbies and (gasp!) old fashioned snail mail pleas that arrive in the mailbox, it appears that everyone is asking for assistance these days. Is it the onset of colder temperatures, the holiday season when people realize just how fortunate they are, or even the last minute push to have increased tax write offs that makes people open up their wallets, pantries, and closets?  But does it even matter what inspires someone to give?  And if there is one thing you can say about Americans, it is that when asked, we donate.  We may be a mass consumerism driven society but when asked to open our wallets and hearts to help the less fortunate, we do so at a greater rate than the rest of the world.  In 2012 alone, Americans donated $316.23 billion dollars, or 2% of the GDP to charity. Now that's a lot of donations.
And now, holiday charity even has its own day.  Today has been dubbed Giving Tuesday.  Currently in its second year, today has been designated as a national day of giving.  In many respects today is a non-profit organization's answer to retail's Black Friday and the Internet's Cyber-Monday as it encourages individuals to make charitable donations to worthy not-for-profit causes.  But you don't, and shouldn't, have to wait until December to give since donations are needed year around.  And not all donations need to be monetary in nature.  For some organizations, the gift of your time to help man a hot line, cook a hot meal, or make repairs to a leaky roof may be even more valuable than cash.  Other organizations might benefit more from the cash or in-kind donations of food or clothing. Regardless of what you donate however, it is important that what you give would actually be of use to the receiving organization.  As someone who has organized more than my share of charity drives, it disheartens me when I see torn or ripped clothing being donated to a homeless shelter or expired food donated to a pantry. Donations should help the benefactors, not demean them or impose additional burdens on them.
One of the dilemmas is often identifying a cause to donate to since there are so many worthy ones out there with the overall need greatly exceeding the supply.  This time of year one of my all time favorite causes is the U.S. Marine Corps' Toys for Tots campaign.  This annual campaign is organized by U.S. Marines stationed all over the world and provides holiday gifts to children who would otherwise not receive any.  I make it a point of donating to their toy drive every year regardless of where I am living and I've also worked for not-for-profit organizations that have benefited from the generosity of the Marines and their donors. I've seen first hand the joy a single wrapped gift can bring to an underprivileged child.  But Toys for Tots isn't the only organization around looking for assistance this holiday season.  There are plenty of national organizations looking for donations but chances are that locally based ones right in your own town are looking for help as well. 
So on this Giving Tuesday, it doesn't matter where or what you give, just do it.  If you need some ideas as to where to start, check these out:

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Getting Into The Holiday Spirit

Yesterday we decorated our house for Christmas.  This has been a holiday tradition for Glenn and me since our first Christmas together.  In Norfolk, our house would be decorated inside and out with fresh pine boughs, white lights, and special ornaments.  The steep eaves of our house were always draped in white icicle lights lending a festive atmosphere to our entire neighborhood.  We have decorated in the cold, the rain, and even under the cover of night.  There was even the year when Glenn was unexpectedly at sea and the men of our neighborhood all pitched in to make sure the house was decked to our usual standards.  Because we were always visiting family on the holiday itself, the pinnacle of the season for us was our annual holiday open house where friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even family passing through the area would descend for food, music and festivities.  Our party was the single event I looked forward to each year and it was always a good time.  Regardless of where we were on Christmas day, decorating our house has always made it so easy to get into the holiday spirit.

We've carried our holiday traditions with us to Albania but have made the expected modifications.  Our tree is no longer a live pine; rather we have a soaring, perfectly shaped pre-lit tree that I must admit is pretty darn nice.  (As someone who grew up in a family that always cut their own fresh tree, switching to fake was a bit hard).  We've learned that not having to string those pesky lights is actually quite nice! Our eaves are no longer covered in white lights but both of the balconies that run along the front of our house are.  After three years our Albanian neighbors don't stare quite as much at the bright spectacle; the first year they didn't really know what to make of them, last year several neighbors attempted to emulate our efforts with a handful of their own colored light strings, and this year we've received thank yous from the same neighbors who actually get to enjoy the view more than we do.  And since we live in a house with limited electrical outlets, we've finally gotten the hang of which sets of lights we can plug into which outlets without tripping our circuit breakers.  Despite our best efforts, however,  for me, it has never felt quite like Christmas here in Albania.

While we've decorated the house for our past two Albanian Christmases, we've never actually been here on the holiday itself.  Our first year we road tripped to Croatia and Slovenia and last year we sought out snow and Christmas markets in Bavaria.  But this year, we'll be staying put for the big day then heading out of the country after the holiday.  And because we will actually be here, we're making more of an effort to make the house festive.  In years past we've set up our Christmas tree in our representational space, leaving our private living space barren of most Christmas adornment.  With the exception of our party and delayed gift opening in front of the tree, we haven't spent any time in our decked out rooms.  This year is different.  Sidney is older and getting into the holiday spirit so this year we've brought the decorations upstairs.  Sidney helped Glenn hang the lights and together we all decorated the tree.  Despite the cool temperatures we don't have snow at our house but we can see it on the mountains outside of the city.  Sitting in our living room lit with holiday lights it feels like it is Christmas and I love it.  Today's agenda includes more decorating and I'm getting a start on the copious amount of cookies I bake each year.  Yes indeed, the Christmas season is upon us and I'm beginning to feel it.

Happy holidays!