Friday, January 31, 2014

Who What When Where Why?

Who, what, when, where, why? These are all questions we were taught to ask in elementary school English class. I distinctively remember sitting in class-either in fourth or fifth grade- and having to write sentences that both asked and answered these questions. At the time it seemed like a fun exercise but now as a parent of a four year old all of these questions are coming rushing back to me. Why you ask? (No pun intended). Because my oh-so inquisitive, perpetual question asking son asks these questions of me on a continuous basis. Who is over there? Who is my friend? What does a bus do? What is pasta? When will we be there? When is tomorrow? Where are we going? Where is Belgium? Why does an airplane fly? Why is she a girl? Over and over and over again. If you are a parent or have spent any time around a four year old, you know exactly what I mean.

We've spent a considerable amount of time driving over the past week and these are the questions that Sidney has been peppering us with during every waking moment of car time. At first the questions were fun and often silly (What is good? What is bad? What is funny?) but over time many of them grew to be marginally annoying. After all, there are only so many times that I can answer the same mundane question. The phrase "when will we be there?" grows old after the first fifteen minutes. After an hour we were tempted to just stop the car so we could say yes, we are here already. But other questions really made us think. Why is the sun yellow? (Good question). What is a broken road? (I sarcastically answered that it is an Albanian road). Why are we going to Belgium? (Because of daddy's new job). The questions went on and on and in hindsight, many of them provided me with a window into what my little boy was thinking. Why are we moving? When will we go home? Where is home? Who will be there? Where are my books? Where is Nene (Sidney's beloved nanny)?

My question is how do I answer all of these more serious questions in a non-overwhelming way that a four year old can understand? How do I allay my son's unspoken fears? What are the correct answers? Are there correct answers? How will I even know?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sidney & The Chocolate Factory

Sacks of cocoa beans
Who doesn't love chocolate? My family certainly does so when the opportunity to tour a chocolate museum came up, we jumped at the chance to literally go to the source. I discovered the Chocoversum in Hamburg, Germany through the Ciao Bambino! travel blog and am so glad I did. (Actually, this fabulous blog, which provides recommendations for family friendly activities in cities around the globe, was my go-to resource for our entire stay in Hamburg-every recommendation was spot on). So craving chocolate off we went to discover this museum (and escape the cold).

From the moment we stepped through the door, we knew we were entering a world of chocolate. The sweet fragrance permeated the entire building; initially the aroma was welcoming but by the end of our tour it became a bit too much even for this die hard chocolate fan. But chocolate was really everywhere.  The purchase of our tickets provided us with small samples of what was to come while the shelves of the gift shop sold everything from chocolate shampoo, body creams and chocolate scented candles to chocolate themed gifts, chocolate scented teas (which we later learned were made from discarded cocoa bean pods) and chocolate itself. And we encountered all of this before we even began to explore the museum.

A tour guide escorted our small group through the history of all things chocolate. Of course, the tour and displays were entirely in German so we relied on an English guidebook and the graphic displays to understand what we were seeing. But despite the language barrier, we got a lot out of the tour. A large world map displayed the geographic regions that produce cocoa beans--you guessed it, they do not grow in Europe! This naturally lead to a discussion of the history of chocolate and the import process of
Fancy chocolate making equipment
cocoa beans.  From there we segued into the most anticipated part of the tour--making our own chocolate bars. We were provided with a bar sized mold filled with molten milk chocolate and could add up to three tablespoons of add-ins of our choice as toppings. Naturally, Sidney added in more chocolate -- chips, sprinkles, and mini candy coated chocolate pieces.  He also dunked his entire hand into the melted chocolate as part of his taste testing of the product. I went "healthy" adding in sunflower seeds and sea salt. Glenn settled for a combination that was somewhere in between.

While our chocolate bars set in the chiller we returned to the museum floor where we learned about the roasting of cocoa beans, the proportion of cocoa beans to sugar and other ingredients that are necessary to make milk, bittersweet, semisweet, and white chocolates, and saw how the "butter" is extracted from the cocoa beans. As an added bonus, the entire museum was hands on with each exhibit providing us with opportunity to taste, smell, or touch the chocolate making process from raw cocoa beans to finished chocolate. Scent machines allowed us to smell the various ingredients that go into making a finished chocolate product. We tasted raw and then roasted cocoa beans, which were simultaneously bitter, nutty, and gritty in flavor then sampled cocoa butter and finally the full fledged melted chocolate in both milk and bittersweet flavors. The chocolate was very good, silky smooth and rich tasting but by this point I found myself craving a crisp salad. Sidney, of course, just wanted more chocolate and ate my share of the sample in addition to his own. Much to my surprise, he preferred the bittersweet chocolate to the milk.

After the tour wrapped up we put our handmade chocolate bars into cellophane bags then quickly escaped outside into the fresh air. Sidney was giddy with excitement at the prospect of getting to eat the chocolate he had made (he was probably hyped up on all of the samples as well). As Sidney said, first he toured a car factory to see how our new car was made and now he got to see a chocolate factory to see how chocolate is made. For a four year old, and his parents, it doesn't get much better than this.

Sampling was the best part

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: Winter

Because we are in the dead of winter and I have yet to see any real snow, I'm thinking of snowy winters of past:

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Thinned Blood

Baby it is cold outside!  I had always heard that when you spent a significant amount of time in a warmer climate your blood thinned, or at least your body, accustomed to a warmer climate had a harder time feeling comfortable when you travelled to a colder place.  I'm not sure whether I believed it or not but after this past week I can now say that I am a believer.  After living in a Mediterranean climate for the past three winters, our travels into northern Europe have chilled me to my bones.

My roots are deep in New England. Spending my childhood in northern Vermont and coastal Maine, cold weather was a fact of life and I rarely gave it a second thought.  In hindsight it might have helped that I probably never felt completely warm from November through April but whatever the reason, I don't remember feeling cold for extended periods of time during my childhood.  Winters were cold but that was the way they were supposed to be.  If you let the weather stop you from venturing out, you could easily find yourself housebound for months on end. But New Englanders seem to thrive on the cold winter weather.  Although I never participated, I knew many people who jumped right into the icy waters as part of the  polar bear plunges each winter.  Yes, that is how people in the north spend their winter days.  I spent my college and early post college years in Massachusetts, a move "south" where I experienced slightly warmer winter temperatures but cold winter weather none the less.  Much to my co-workers' and husband's chagrin, I spent my first winter living in southern Virginia without donning a winter coat.  While everyone else was bundled up I found the temperatures to be mild and not winter like at all.

Fast forward a few years and we found ourselves living in Albania where winter days alternated between cool and damp and warm and sunny.  On all but a handful of days going outside required little more than a sweater or a light jacket.  A "cold" day might necessitate adding a scarf and heavier coat in the morning but by noon neither was necessary.  (Albanians, however, always bundled up throughout the year, claiming that it was cold and fearing the inevitable "breeze" that would make them ill).  For this New England girl, Albanian winters were anything but cold and no matter how many I experienced, they just never felt like winter to me.  During two separate winters, wanting to experience true winter weather we made forays to both Slovenia and Bavaria only to be met with warmer weather than we had back home in Tirana.  So much for winter weather!

But we left Albania last week headed in a circuitous route for Belgium and I don't think my body has been warm since takeoff. First, we flew from Tirana to Sweden which while beautiful in the summer, is dark and cold in January.  Cold as in it hurt us to breathe and see cold.  With temperatures hovering in the single digits I know they were nothing like the polar vortex that struck the United States earlier this month and I doubt that they would have bothered me a few years ago.  But now, they were too much to bear.  Despite his triple layer LL Bean winter coat, my poor son took hours of shivering and a hot bath to fully warm up after we dragged him out to dinner one night.  Germany wasn't much better; in fact, it felt even worse.  First it was windy. Then the dry cold shocked our systems and had us spending our days hunkering down in the hotel rather than exploring Hamburg. (Now lots of relaxation and down time wasn't a bad thing but it just wasn't how I had envisioned our spending our German vacation time).  Room service took the place of wandering the streets in search of local dining options and steamy showers did little to take the chill out of my body.  We felt as though our hotel rooms never got warm enough but at least the down duvets that are standard issue in hotels in this part of the world mostly did their job.

So today we are heading to our next stop and will be one step closer to Belgium. People have warned us that Belgium is cool and damp year around but never cold. I hope that is true since this New England girl has lost her thick blood.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Volvo Experience

Sidney test driving his own Volvo
I have always loved Volvos.  My trusty 1976 mint green Volvo station wagon saw me through high school and into college hauling me and too many of my friends from point A to B and back again.  The car wasn't fancy and was old and a bit rusty by the time I bought it but despite its ongoing quirks, strange noises, and static filled radio, it never failed me when it mattered the most.  So it was with great sadness that I turned her over to the Volvo graveyard but at that moment I vowed that someday I would own another one.  And now we do.

When we first moved overseas we made the decision to drive inexpensive used cars with the idea that we would buy a new Volvo before we returned to the United States.  When we realized that we would be staying in Europe for an additional three years, we decided to go ahead and buy a Volvo to drive for the remainder of our time in Europe. Utilizing the military sales program, we were able to customize our car down to the most minute detail then fly to Sweden to pick it up.  From the time we initiated contact with Lisa, our Volvo sales rep in England last fall, we've been going back and forth picking and choosing which options we wanted.  Model?  XC 70 D5 with a turbo diesel engine.  (When we visited Scandinavia two years ago, we drove this model as our rental car and knew this was exactly what we wanted). Color?  Twilight bronze.  Heated seats?  Of course!  How many bells and whistles?  All of them.  The process took awhile, so much so that Glenn began to casually mention Lisa in everyday conversations, but in the end all of the back and forth was well worth it because last week we picked up our car at the Volvo world headquarters.

But picking up the car was more than driving off in a new vehicle; it was a day long experience that despite my initial trepidation proved to be a great day for all of us.  Not only did Volvo send a driver to collect us and all of our copious piles of luggage at the airport, they picked us up the next morning from our hotel and brought us to their factory which was like a city unto itself. Like so much of Sweden, the showroom and factory were sleek and super modern.  (Talk about feeling like frumpy Americans).  After signing a few papers we were ushered into the delivery
All aboard for the factory tour
hall where we were introduced to our long awaited new vehicle.  I'm not a car buff but I must say that the car was beautiful. From the polished exterior and tripped out instrument panel to the leather interior emitting the often imitated but never replicated new car smell, the car was well worth the wait.  We were given a quick over view of the mechanics of the vehicle then took it for a brief test drive while we waited for lunch and the factory tour.  While we waited for our meal of Swedish meatballs (of course) Glenn sat in the vehicle and played with all of the car's high tech features and Sidney test drove the child sized Volvo cars that were in the children's waiting area.  Similar to visiting an IKEA store, the Volvo showroom had an entire area dedicated to the amusement and entertainment of children.

And then came the factory tour.  I'll admit, the prospect of touring a car factory didn't really excite me but I'm so glad we participated. Being boys, Glenn and Sidney were excited from the get go.  As Sidney said, he had never visited a factory before and he wanted to see all of the robots.  As we rode the little blue train we learned some interesting facts about the Volvo company.  First, the company was founded in 1927 with the intent of building cars study enough to withstand Sweden's poor road conditions.  In addition to passenger cars, Volvo manufactures trucks, tractors, and even airplanes.  The factory employees 3,300 employees working in two shifts.  The majority of Volvo vehicles are produced as customized orders with the United States, China, and Sweden being the largest markets.   Cars shipped to China have more leg space in the back seat than models destined for other countries since Chinese who can afford Volvos usually have chauffers and the car owners desire comfort.  Seven of the eight Volvo models currently being produced are built on the same platform meaning they can be built on the same assembly line.  And the list of facts could go on.....

I wasn't sure what to expect but the first thing that struck me was how big and clean the factory was.  In fact, it was immaculate.  It was also so big-- 358,281 square meters-- that we saw employees peddling bicycles throughout the factory as a means of moving from one end of the building to another.  This also meant that there were designated bicycle parking areas in select corners of the factory floor.  Yes, it was that big.  As our tram drove us up and down one aisle after another I was amazed at our automated so much of the production was.  Yes, there were people working on the ergonomically correct assembly lines but laser robots did the majority of the precision work.  We drove past row after row of doors, windows, engines, and side panels while car bodies were transported on the trams above our heads.  Sitting at the "marriage point" we observed the moment where frames and chassis met and became one.  I was most amazed, however by the diversity of cars that were being simultaneously produced.  Remember how I said that the majority of cars are customized?  On a single assembly line we saw several models each with different colors, configurations, and even right versus left drive models rolling along one after another.  I had envisioned a monotonous chain of the same car rolling out along the conveyor belt but instead I saw a diversity that is representative of the entire Volvo line of cars.  An electric right hand drive X60 might be produced between a diesel left hand drive XC90 followed by an S80.  Sidney may have been impressed by the number of robots--those were impressive too---and fork lifts he saw, but I was impressed by the entire production.

I am so glad we bought a Volvo and bought it the way we did.  Not only do we have a new car that I absolutely love but as Sidney says, we saw where our car was made.  How many people can say that?  So if you are in the market for a new car, go test drive a Volvo.  And if you have the chance, go to Sweden to pick it up.  You won't regret it.

Bundled up and braving the Swedish cold to pick up our new car

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall

Mirror, mirror on the wall; who is the fairest of them all?  Or so asks the evil queen in the classic fairy tale Snow White. She never receives the answer she likes and in real life, neither do the majority of us.  Whether we like it or not, mirrors really don't lie.  Sometimes I hear people say that particular mirrors make them look fatter or thinner or any of a variety of other perceptions.  Personally I don't believe it but if it makes others happy to think that is the case, then I don't want to take that away from them.

In our old house we had few mirrors and some of the dimmest lighting I had ever experienced, resulting in my never looking too closely at what I actually looked like.  And lacking a full length mirror, it had been years since I saw a full view of my body.  And surprisingly enough, I was quite happy with all of this.  But then I saw what I really looked like. During our recent stay in an uber modern hotel filled with bright lights and numerous mirrors I had the occasion to really look at my image and I can't say that I really liked what I saw.

Obviously, as my lack of mirrors can attest to, I'm not a particularly vain person.  In my younger years I considered myself pretty enough; by no means gorgeous but not ugly.  I always wished I was taller but somewhere in the middle of high school I realized that wasn't going to happen so I learned to accept that I was petite and would spend a lifetime getting my clothing altered.  I've been told that I have nice eyes and when I used to wear my hair long I regularly received compliments.  But all of that feels like so long ago.  Peering into the mirror I saw that my hair is thinner than it used to be and even regular bouts with deep conditioner hasn't prevented it from looking dull and flat.  And despite regular sessions with a hairdresser, those pesky grays keep making a reappearance with growing frequency.  In the bright lights of the bathroom I realized that I have not just one but a series of fine lines around the corners of my eyes.  I remember my grandmother calling them crow's feet and as a little girl I thought they only appeared on old ladies.  Now I see them in my own image being reflected back at me.  I can also see that not only have I not lost all of my "baby weight" from four years ago but my body shape has shifted and it now sags in places it never did before.  I guess this is all a part of growing old. And I am older than I was the last time I really looked in a mirror and all of the heavy duty skin creams can't do anything to change that.

As I pondered my appearance my four year old stared in amazement at his own in the same full length mirror.  He alternately smiled, made faces, and posed all while gazing in amazement at the image being reflected back at him.  He repeatedly requested "Mamma look at me" and marveled at what he saw.  His reactions were in complete contrast to mine and despite my grim feelings about my own reflection I couldn't help but smile at his enjoyment.  Soon I found myself hamming it up right along side him.  And then he told me to smile again and I did and momentarily forgot about my own initial displeasure at what I saw.  For that brief moment I looked and felt years younger, smiling at my reflection and realizing that my reflection was just that; a reflection.  When I smiled I had a happy image, when I frowned a sad one.  With the smile the fine lines around my eyes appeared finer, I focused less on my hair and body and I felt younger than I had in a long time.  The bouncing child beside me reminded me that yes, image is just that and that when looking in the mirror you see what you want to see.  Mirrors really don't lie, they just  reflect reality.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Traveling Light?

I'm only joking here.  As anyone who has ever moved before knows, it is never easy.  And trust me when I tell you that when you are moving from one country to another and will be literally living out of your suitcases for several months, it is even more difficult.  Sure, thanks to the U.S. Navy we have packers who carefully wrapped every item in our old house and movers who will deliver the boxes (298 in all) to our next doorstep, but we still need to physically get ourselves from point A to point B.  And with limited space the most difficult decision we must make is what to carry with us on our journey.

Just the few bags we brought with us during our recent move
The predicament over what to pack in our suitcases is even difficult when you live in a place without any outgoing mail service.  When we moved to Albania we had the luxury of sending boxes of necessities to our new home ahead of time.  Not this time around. But despite that, we somehow carried half as many bags with us this time as we did when we first moved overseas.  Perhaps it is because we are moving to a place where we can easily buy any items we forgot.  However, we still required two vehicles to transport us and all of our luggage to the airport when we left Tirana.  And the driver who met us at the airport in Gothenburg arrived in a mini bus and laughed when he saw our collective luggage. In broken English he asked us how three people could have so many bags.  How?  We're Americans first of all and Americans just don't know how to pack lightly.  Add to that the fact that we are Americans who are moving and will be living out of our suitcases for the next few months. That's how!  Needless to say, we were a sight at baggage claim and an even bigger spectacle when we checked into the hotel we will only be staying at for two nights.  But in the end, it is just all a part of our big adventure.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Transiting Through Change

Explaining why the Cozy Coupe was covered
in bubble wrap was just the beginning.  
As I predicted, this has been a rough week for us.  With our long procession of farewells behind us, we have now left Albania and are in the midst of transitioning into our new life.  With a little over a week before Glenn needs to check in with his new command, we are taking time to travel a bit, relax a lot and most importantly, spend time together as a family.  We've ridden on airplanes and stayed in two different hotels leading Sidney to believe that we are in the middle of another family vacation.  But this isn't vacation, this is our new life and helping my little four year old understand this is proving to be harder than I imagined.

We've been talking to Sidney about the big move for some time with mixed results.  At first he was resistant, proclaiming that he didn't want to move and didn't want to go to school; at one point he even suggested that daddy move for his job and the two of us remain in Albania.  (Sorry son, but that just wasn't going to happen).  Gradually Sidney seemed to move towards acceptance and even showed a bit of excitement at the prospect of a new house, a new car, and new friends.  But I knew we weren't out of the woods just yet.

We tried to keep the house as normal as possible in the weeks leading up to the move by not removing pictures from the walls or stacking boxes in plain sight.  But when the movers arrived with their piles of boxes, bubble wrap, and packing tape, the reality began to sink it.  Simultaneously curious and angry, Sidney followed them from room to room, watching what they were doing and shyly asking a lot of "why" questions.  Being Albanians, they were wonderfully patient and answered each of his questions.  However, their answers didn't please Sidney any more than mine did.  And when it came time to actually pack up Sidney's playroom, it was just too much for my little boy to bear.  There were so many tears and fits of anger, denial that we were moving, and unwillingness to be a part of the process. Ever so patiently Glenn and I would try to redirect him, showing him how much fun the boxes could be to play with, explaining that opening them in our new home would be like opening presents (as someone who has unpacked too many times in my life, I can only dream that this will really be the case), and talking about all of the fun the three of us would have together.   We even talked about the number of plane rides we would take and how we would be able to ride trains all of the time when we reach our new destination.  These distractions would momentarily work but all too soon the tears would return.  For every two steps forward, there was one backwards.  Just when I thought he was OK with his items being packed up, a favorite bag of toy airplanes which were meant to be hand carried, got boxed up.  Fortunately the movers were quick to open the box and rescue them but the whole experience seemed to add to Sidney's anxiety.

A make-shift bed because if "Sidney is in
the suitcase mamma can't pack it."
And then there was the nanny factor.  Having watched Sidney since he was an infant, the nanny has an extremely strong attachment to our son.  That said, she has known from the  moment we arrived that we would be leaving but somehow this knowledge didn't make our impending departure any easier.  She had been crying on and off for the past month yet the tears seemed to become a daily occurrence this past week.  Tuesday morning it all came to a head with her continuously crying in Sidney's presence.  This only added to his distress and my own as well since I was trying to also deal with the movers while consoling my son all while operating on a few hours of sleep.  As a last resort Glenn and I brought her home early and let her know that we wouldn't be needing her services on Wednesday as we had originally planned.  This only added to her flood of tears but we simply couldn't take it any longer.  What we needed to do was focus on taking care of Sidney and helping him to understand what was going on and her tears were only making the situation worse.

He almost seemed relieved once we had dropped the nanny off at her home and we actually had an enjoyable Tuesday afternoon in our empty house.  Sidney explored newly emptied spaces, asked a few questions, and even talked excitedly about the plane ride he was going to take.  I naively thought we were out of the woods.  But Wednesday morning arrived with stories of mummies invading if we left the house, a new found fear of heights (i.e. not being able to ride in airplanes), and an unwillingness to leave the house.  Sidney persistently pulled the overfilled suitcases from the garage back into the house informing me that we couldn't move if we didn't have our suitcases so he was bringing them back inside.  When our driver arrived with the car Sidney all but lost it.  There were more painful tears and denials but eventually, after more coaxing and cajoling, we were able to get Sidney into the vehicle (sans suitcases--which were transported by the second driver after we left) with the promise of lunch.  All was well until after lunch when Sidney wanted to return home.  This time we distracted him with a promise of watching a movie in the hotel room.  It worked temporarily...... until the meltdown at the airport........

And so the pattern has been continuing.  Is there an end in sight?  Yes. Do I know when it is?  Absolutely not, although I hope it is sooner rather than later. It is so hard to watch my baby when he is sad and confused about what is happening around him.  I am assuring him that everything will be fine and talking about the great new adventures that await us.  He's taken to given me a look that makes him look wise behind his years when I tell him these things.  But everything will be fine and what doesn't destroy us will only make us stronger.  Sidney will be able to add a whole new set of memories to his Albanian ones and will hopefully soon forget about his anxiety surrounding this move.  That is until we get to do it all over again in three years.  Other parents have told me that moving is much easier when kids are younger so I can only imagine what I have to look forward to.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


Early in our Albanian tenure; we were all younger, thinner, and
had more hair (I was even a red head)
Today, after 952 days, we are departing Albania for what is likely to be the last time. The past few years have been a wild ride filled with ups and downs, great joy and crushing heartbreak, adventure filled weekends and lazy days of doing nothing, long work hours and too many responsibilities.  We've made life long friends and met people we hope to never see again.  Our little boy arrived as a baby and is departing as a worldly, bilingual four year old.  We've visited twenty-three European countries (some multiple times) yet managed to explore Albania's natural beauty from north to south, east to west.  (In fact, we've probably seem more of Albania than many of our Albanian friends).  We've explored more castle ruins than I even thought was humanly possible and walked in places that seem trapped in a previous time. I quickly discovered the importance of investing in a good pair of shoes, always carrying my own toilet paper, and never leaving home without both a hand held fan and a sweater.  I've learned to improvise with my cooking, to always watch where I step, and that embassies, street dogs, farm animals and overflowing dumpsters can happily co-exist on a single street (namely ours).  I've had it reaffirmed time and time again that I really do not care for offal, raki, or Albanian wine but have never tired of the plethora of  fresh fish, figs, and other seasonal delicacies.  My defensive driving skills have been honed and I been amazed time and time again at what can be made out of concrete, but I still can't decipher whether a bobbing head means yes, no, or a little of both.

We've grown and matured and we've seen Albania grow right along with us; new roads, many with actual pavement, have reduced travel times from one end of the country to another; new shopping malls, movie theaters, and grocery stores have all introduced a variety of services and amenities to the country inching Albania one step closer to her western contemporaries. But through all of this the house across the street from us remains as occupied and unfinished as the day we arrived while the number of old Mercedes, battered furgons, and over the top expensive vehicles plying the roads has drastically increased.  During the past two and a half years airlines have come and gone, we witnessed national elections and a new government come to power, and are watching Albania's ongoing quest to be welcomed into the EU.  From The New York Times to Lonely Planet, travel writers continue to rate Albania as an up and coming place to visit.  (And, in my opinion, Albania is well worth a visit).  Yes, the past two and a half years have been quite the adventure.

So what does the future hold for us?  For sure, there will be more adventures, more memories to be made and new opportunities to be had. This blog will continue with the same URL but a new name.  (I'm testing out names so if you have any suggestions, please send them my way).  So stay tuned to find out what the future holds for us!

Our most recent family picture; we are all older and
wiser but still enjoying our adventures

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

(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 finally:

Our view for the past 31 months; to me, this is Albania:

Monday, January 20, 2014

Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da

OB-LA-DI, OB-LA-DA, life goes on......or so says the popular Beatles tune.  These familiar lyrics are an apt description of our lives and the lives of other military families whose careers require regular relocation:  we know each move is temporary before we even have our official orders in hand, our time in the job has an end date from the moment we start, and once we leave the cycle will repeat itself both for us and the people replacing us then for the people after us and them and so on into perpetuity.  We know we have a limited amount of time in which we can put our mark on our new position before someone else comes in and tries to do it even better.  That is simply the way it is.  So yes, life does go on after we are no longer here.

Today is my first day of not working since I started my job in August 2011. At the moment I'm waiting for our packers to arrive rather than sitting in what I still think of as my office.  I may not be there but I'm sure the usual Monday morning hum is continuing without me just as it did with my predecessor and the one before her.  From the moment I first sat down at my desk on that hot August morning, I knew the job was only temporary.  Time is relative but because I was in the position for longer than most people, I was able to spend the first two years focusing on my actual job rather than thinking about what would happen "after".  But in the past few months that "after" came creeping up on me like an unspoken cloud hanging over my head.  Soon I found myself sitting in meetings and planning sessions talking and thinking about things that would only take place after my departure.  As my mind drifted during particularly long or arduous meetings I found myself wondering whether or not I even cared.  At first I did, but later I didn't and simply tried to feign interest in the subject at hand.  Until I couldn't any longer.  By mid-December I may have physically been present but mentally I was checking out.

But now, none of any of this matters any more. For better or worse we've left our mark on this place and our replacements have arrived, are settling in, and we are already being forgotten--which is a good thing.  We're moving on to our next post where we can start this process all over again.  And the process of starting over will happen here as well, like it has before us and will long after us.


 OB-LA-DI, OB-LA-DA, life goes on, brah!
Lala how life goes on....
OB-LA-DI, OB-LA-DA, life goes on, brah!
Lala how the life goes on.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Kruje Redux, Again & Again

Kruje was both our first and last day trip here in Albania.  Because of this, here's a repost of a popular blog posting from two years ago:


We had been in Albania less than a month before we discovering the town of Kruje.  Located less than an hour driving time outside of Tirana (which is nothing given the road conditions in the country and the time it takes to drive the shortest of distances), this small mountainside town is historic, touristy, and breathtaking all at the same time.  It has become our go-to location to take our out of town visitors- both official and unofficial.

View of the castle ruins
During the 15th Century Kruje was an important part of Albania's resistance movement against the invading Ottoman Empire.  Under the leadership of Albania's national hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, its castle was a part of Albania's inter-connected communication system that ran the length of the country warning citizens of impending invaders.  Its strategic location is still apparent.  On a clear day, you can see the Adriatic Sea to the west, Montenegro to the north, and the snow covered peaks of southeastern Albania to the south. On one visit we were fortunate enough to see all three at sunset (we even saw the green flash of the sun sinking into the horizon- something we had only previously seen in Hawaii).  During all of our visits, with the sheer mountains serving as a backdrop, we've seen the rolling hills filled with olive groves giving way to the flatter coastal plains.  Sometimes the mountains are shrouded in low lying clouds but it is always beautiful.

By far, the main historical attraction of Kruje is its castle ruins and the Skenderbeg Museum.  While the walls remain, the castle itself is mostly in ruins.  It is possible to see the remains of some of the original buildings, including a mostly deteriorated monastery.  A small ethnographic museum depicting early life in Albania is located in one corner of the grounds.  And this being Albania, several cafes have been erected on spots that were once strategically placed lookout spots along the castle's exterior walls. 

In 1982, the Skenderbeg Museum, designed by Pranvera Hoxha, the architecture daughter of the later dictator, opened.  We've toured this museum on several occasions both by ourselves and under the guidance of English speaking docents.  As you wind through the warren of small rooms filled with ancient artifacts, maps, and historical reproductions, you are treated to a thorough retelling of Albania's ancient history.  The crowning jewel of the museum, however, is the panoramic views from the building's rooftop terrace.  From here you can see to the Adriatic and beyond.  (Sidney, of course, is partial to the spring fed water fountain that is built into the side of the museum's exterior walls).

The old Ottoman Bazaar; many a gift
has been purchased here
A well preserved stone lined Ottoman Bazaar serves as the heart of the tourist district.  Here aggressive merchants invite you into their shops to view their wares. Some of the goods are tacky- coffee mugs and magnets sporting the faces of Enver Hoxha, the late dictator, and Sali Berisha, the former long time Prime Minister. Soviet era military memorabilia (a helmet with a bullet hole??) shares shelf space with hand carved olive wood bowls and old rusted irons.  Other items are uniquely Albanian.Where else can you get a hand woven rug that sports both the Albanian and American flags and stone ashtrays shaped like the ubiquitous Albanian bunkers? Whatever your fancy; whether it be traditional wedding costumes, felted wool slippers and hats, hand embroidered tablecloths, antique dowry chests, or silver filigree jewelry, you can buy it here. Haggling is welcome as are Euros or even American dollars. You will be promised a deal because you are a "special friend".  If you have money to spend and want to shop, the Ottoman Bazaar is the place to go.

This would not be an Albanian town if it wasn't filled with smoke filled cafes and restaurants.  You don't go to Kruje because you want fine dining.  Whether tucked into nooks in the bazaar or perched a top the castle ruins, Kruje has its share of restaurants with menus boasting "traditional Albanian cuisines".  Roasted lamb and village chicken (whole roasted chicken served over heavily salted rice) accompany whatever grilled vegetable is in season.  As is the case in all restaurants in this country, pizza is always an option (and one usually taken by the Brown boys). Harsh tasting red wine and raki are the drinks of choice.  The often mediocre quality of the food is quickly forgotten since the scenic views are the real reason for your visit.

Kruje seems to have a little something for everyone and that is why we keep going back.  And as any one who has visited us can attest to, if you visited us in Albania, we took you to Kruje.

Clouds looming over the mountains

Thursday, January 16, 2014

(Unaccompanied) Baggage

The movers arrived for the first time yesterday to pack up our unaccompanied baggage shipment.  In military circles this smaller shipment of the items you will live off of until all of your household items arrives is often called an express shipment. Express as in it arrives quickly or at a minimum quicker than   the crates of your furniture, electronics, and other worldly items.  I stopped calling it an express shipment after our move to Albania when the said "express" shipment arrived one full day prior to the rest of our household goods.  So much for express!  Now I am calling it by its other name, "unaccompanied baggage" or UAB.  UAB is perhaps the most important shipment a military family will have when moving since these are the items, all 1,000 pounds of them, that with the exception of the luggage will bring onto the plane with us, we are expected to live off of for the foreseeable future. In our case we are planning on the foreseeable future being three or so months in a hotel room so careful packing is essential.

So what does one pack for three people for three months when everything that goes into those boxes must be stored in our small hotel room?  What can we live without for so many months?  These are questions I pondered for some time.  Although Belgium's weather experiences none of the extreme highs and lows that we have here in Albania, we will be transitioning from winter into spring and perhaps even a bit of summer before we see our household goods again.  With that in mind, rain gear is a given in.  But add in the myriad of Glenn's required uniforms plus off duty clothing and clothes for Sidney and myself and our tiny allotted closet space is sure to be filled to capacity.  Each and every item was selected with care keeping dual purposes in mind.  (I also have no idea what our laundry situation will be but I suspect it will mean my spending many hours in a laundry mat).

Anyone whose read this blog knows I like food so the prospective cooking situation concerns me.  I've been assured that our room has a kitchenette but I am unclear as to what this actually means.  I have heard a refrigerator and dishwasher are a part of the deal but other details are vague.  I'm assuming there is a stove of some sort and hopefully there is an oven as well.  I haven't been able to get any clarity so I don't know what I'll be dealing with.  My crock pot and set of knives were the first item to get packed into the UAB but multi-purpose pots and pans were selected with great care.  I have no idea if I packed the right items but it is too late to change my mind now.

So now I sit and wait.  I've been told that our boxes will arrive in Belgium in about ten days but I've heard that line before.  I'm hopeful that this time it will arrive on time.  If they do, I may go back to calling this shipment express.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

(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:

Lake Ohrid, from the Albanian shores

Monday, January 13, 2014

Shades Of Gray

With the United States embroiled in a tit for tat debate with India over the treatment a diplomat, the issue of diplomatic immunity has been making headlines as of late.  At issue is the arrest of the Indian woman on charges that she committed visa fraud by falsifying records related to the employment of her Indian nanny.  The details are murky and contested by both sides but the larger question to ponder is whether diplomatic immunity is a "get out of jail free card" allowing foreign diplomats to be exempt from following any and all of the laws of their host country (which in this case is the United States but the same principle can be applied to diplomats posted in any country around the world).

So what exactly is diplomatic immunity and who is entitled to this privilege?  According to Wikipedia, diplomatic immunity is a form of legal immunity governed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that ensures that diplomats are free to conduct their business and are not susceptible to lawsuit or prosecution under their host country's laws. Although it is rarely done, and India has refused to do so, a diplomat's home country may waive the immunity and allow the host country to prosecute if the diplomat has committed a serious crime.  But the decision to do so lays with the home country and the home country alone.  So does this mean a diplomat can do what they want, when they want without shouldering the consequences of their actions or should?  Is it really a ticket to evade the law for one's own personal gain?  

Anyone who has spent time in the Washington D.C./Northern Virginia area is familiar with the license plates sported by diplomatic vehicles.  All too often these are the cars that are double parked along Connecticut Avenue, speeding along Constitution Avenue, and generally violating a myriad of traffic laws with the police turning a blind eye since the registered owners of the vehicles are diplomats.  I'll be honest, here in Albania the local authorities afford us, as diplomats, the same courtesy.  But just because you can violate traffic laws and get away with it doesn't mean you should. At least that is how my husband and I feel.  More often than not it would be easier to double park but we then remind ourselves of how we disliked this very behavior when we lived in D.C.  (And yes, it doesn't matter if everyone, regardless of their status, in Albania violates the traffic laws.  A law is a law).  We also believe that as diplomats, we are representatives of our country at all times and as such, we should set a good example and even be held to a higher standard than the general public.  After all, if nothing else, our license plates immediately identify us as both Americans and diplomats.  If only others felt the same way.  But in the big scheme of things, I suppose traffic violations which include thousands of unpaid fines in the DC alone, are a relatively minor problem when compared to some things that go on.

The Washington Post published an op-ed piece on the extent of diplomatic immunity last week that highlighted the problem of foreign diplomats exploiting domestic workers in the United States.  Unfortunately, it is an all too common occurance with diplomat after diplomat hiding behind their immunity while they knowingly and sometimes openly violate the U.S.'s labor and human rights laws.  I seriously think that for every case that gets brought to the public's attention there are several more lurking behind the shield of immunity.  Because of this there are people who are essentially enslaved on American soil and treated in ways that no human should ever be treated.  More often than not when problems become public, diplomats are whisked out of the country without receiving any punishment for their crimes.  In rare cases, the country will waive the immunity and the diplomat will be punished.  If only this happened more often.   Instead, as has happened in this most recent incident, the diplomat returns home after committing misdeeds unrelated to their actual job, the crimes go unpunished, and victims are left victimized.  Somehow I seriously doubt that is what the framers of the Vienna Convention had in mind.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

No Shoes Allowed

Shoes? No shoes?  They are required for service in most business establishments but what about your own home?  This is a conversation that popped up on my Facebook page recently.  The question at hand was whether you wear shoes in your own house or immediately remove them upon entering.  Taking the conversation one step further was the question of whether or not guests were expected to remove their shoes upon entering your house.  Sounds simple (or even silly depending upon where you are coming from) but you would be surprised at the debate this question ignited.  Apparently the issue isn't quite as simple as it may initially appear.

Growing up my mom fought an ongoing battle with us kids about removing our shoes when we entered the house.  Granted, during the winter months in New England it was a give-in that we weren't going to wear our dirty and snowy boots indoors (well, my brother thought differently but that is another story for another day).  It wasn't until I lived on my own and was responsible for my own housekeeping that I noticed how much dirt and grime got tracked into the house simply by wearing outdoor shoes inside.  Suddenly I became a convert to going shoeless in the house and I found that I rather liked the feel of clean floors under my bare feet.  (But that is in my own home!).  When Sidney was a baby and moved into his crawling phase I became even more vigilant about not wearing shoes that had been outside in the house.  His daycare center was good about instituting this practice as well, issuing each parent their very own set of booties to slip on over their shoes during drop off and pick up time.  Not everyone remembered to remove them however; it was a common sight to see a military officer in uniform walking out the door of the building still wearing their blue paper slippers.

When we arrived in Albania, where everything is covered in a fine layer of dust, and found ourselves in a house with tile floors, our habit of going shoeless inside continued.  (Because of the house is always cold we are apt to wear slippers instead of going barefoot).  Both our nanny and our housekeeper showed up on their first day of work toting plastic "slippers" which they put on the minute they enter the house.  I quickly noticed that these hard plastic sandals are all the rage amongst Albanian women who wear them with socks year around while inside.  Fashionable they aren't but practical they are.  In reality, Albania is a country where most people seem to not wear shoes indoors.  We've never asked our guests to remove their shoes while visiting and certainly don't expect them to, but many do any way.  We have however, been asked to remove our shoes when we have been guests in other people's homes.  This request has always been followed with being provided with our own pair of ill-fitting slippers.  The first time this happened I was slightly aghast at the prospect of wearing someone else's shoes; now I make sure to carry a clean pair of socks in my purse for just such occasions.

When I think about it, this custom just makes sense.  It even has me thinking that perhaps I should invest in a selection of house slippers for our guests to wear in lieu of their shoes when they visit.  What do you think?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

How Many Ways Can You Say Goodbye?

Saying goodbye is rarely easy.  I've known this for some time and am being reminded of it again as we enter our final weeks here and are saying farewell to the many wonderful people we've met over the past two plus years.  As has been the case with all of our moves, we've known our time was limited since the moment we stepped foot on our Albanian roller coaster.  We've watched people arrive after us and even more depart.  Some of their farewells have been bittersweet while others have been just plain hard.  All the while we've known our time was coming and suddenly, that time is now.

But actually it began a few weeks ago.  One by one farewell events have been popping up on our calendars making us realize just how many people we have met here in Albania.  Lunches and dinners with both individuals and large groups are being planned.  More than one reception is planned as well.  We are hosting some of these events ourselves while others are being held in our honor.  This morning friends hosted a farewell brunch for me with the entire American Embassy family.  I was touched by the outpouring of people who gave up their Saturday morning to come and say goodbye.  I survived without shedding any tears but there were moments when I came close.  I was reminded that I have met some truly wonderful people here in Tirana.  But this morning was just the tipping point.  From here on out we have at least one farewell event scheduled for every evening until we depart.  Some days we have lunches scheduled as well.  Sure we will be physically busy saying goodbye to so many people but it will be emotionally draining as well.  While some people are professional acquaintances others are true friends.  As much as we are ready to leave, severing some of these ties is turning out to be harder than I had anticipated.  And it is a reminder that no matter how many times you do it, saying goodbye is very hard indeed.  Before it is all over I am sure a tear or two will fall.

So in the languages of everyone we are saying goodbye to, farewell, arrivederci, adios, lamtumirë, pożegnanie, au revoir, auf wiedersehen, la revedere, свидания, αντίο, 见, afscheid.............