Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The W is my Destiny

The W is back. 

This past summer we relocated to our next post: DC. We were sad to leave beautiful Albania - especially our beautiful helper and babysitter, Liza, and our million dollar view of Mt. Dajti. But we are glad to be back in the US, soaking up its benefits of proximity to high-quality healthcare, frequent visits with stateside friends and family, and first-world living. 

The W is surprising. 

And October is a lovely month to be in the US. Apple picking, fall festivals, beautiful weather, Halloween with young kids, and pumpkin mania. A couple of weeks ago I texted my husband from Trader Joe's and told him that pumpkin hysteria was in full swing. He requested that I "buy all of it." 

The W spares no one. 

And yet, October is also approximately 90 days post transfer, which means the new post honeymoon is over; let the Fall Funk begin. 

The W is the W curve of cultural adjustment, which I think looks like this:

The Funk always takes me by surprise. And of course it's not always a fall funk. Last time I moved in the spring, so it was a summer funk. 

People in the nomadic community throw around the term "culture shock," but my favorite descriptive term for this process is "transition fatigue," because it happens when you move back for a domestic tour too. 

Even in the US, we professional nomads have to reestablish ourselves in the new place. That means: new house, new friends, new school, new job, new coworkers, new car (maybe), new everything. It's exhausting.

BUT, according the the W, it gets better. And I remember it getting better. Until it starts again. Which is why my #1 bidding preference for next time is: ability to extend. 

Unless the new place sucks, of course. ;)  

Saturday, January 11, 2014

My 3 Day Detox

No, I wasn't IN detox. I cannot imagine what that looks like in Albania, if it even exists. In response to my holiday overindulgence in the last few weeks of 2013, I began 2014 with a gentle detox.

I've always wanted to try this, but have never before had time or the interest in doing the work that is necessary to make a detox accessible--and edible. And believe me, it is a lot of work. Although the ingredients are simple, creativity is required in taking those ingredients and making them into something that I'd want to eat, as opposed to eating plain vegetables and counting the hours until I can eat bread again.

My husband also tried the detox. He was miserable anyway. Even with all the cheating.

On December 31, as I sipped my glass of champagne, my body began to scream at me. It had been whining for the last couple of weeks, but it had reached its limit. My knees were hurting, my skin pale, and I was exhausted. And yet, it was the holidays! Have another Christmas cookie!

By New Year's Day I had decided to do something radical about my diet, but waited, of course, until we came back from Prague. A mini-vacation in the Czech Republic is certainly not the time to begin a detox.

We landed in Tirana on the 5th, and on the way home I stopped at my favorite vegetable market to stock up on produce. One of the benefits of doing a detox in Albania is that the produce is fresh, delicious, and inexpensive. If I decide to do this again in the spring there will be even more variety, and it will be fresher and cheaper. It is not organic, but it can't possibly be coated with as many chemicals as produce available in the US simply because it deteriorates faster from a fresh state and tastes better.

I used a template from Mind Body Green as an outline, and started the first full day we were home. I did not follow a strict plan, but completely eliminated wheat, dairy, sugar, and alcohol, and drank tea instead of coffee in the morning. I ate a lot of fruits, vegetables, walnuts, almonds, and cashews. I couldn't find the rubber seal for our blender until the second day, so the first two smoothies were pretty exciting. Note: a food processor is NOT a substitute for a blender.

A Super Breakfast
- banana
- frozen berries
-handful of walnuts
- ice and water

- handful of spinach
- peach 
- handful of almonds
- ice and water

Dinners consisted of salad, a variety of steamed vegetables, and protein. The first night I cooked salmon with olive oil, lemon, and salt in the slow cooker, and the second night I adapted Dr. Oz's recipe for lentil soup. The third night was quinoa with lightly roasted vegetables, and my husband had chicken. Salad dressing was olive oil, lemon juice, and a dash of dijon mustard.

Salad toppings
- avocado
- green peppers
- tomatoes

Tabouli with quinoa instead of bulgar.
- parsley
- cucumbers
- green onions
- tomatoes
- quinoa
- olive oil
- lemon juice

Lentil soup
- red lentils
- onions
- carrots 
- tomatoes
- olive oil
- cumin
- bay leaves
- freshly made vegetable stock

I was extremely pleased with the results. I felt energized and less inflamed by the end of the first day, and my knee pain had disappeared by the second day. My skin improved, and I lost a little sag in my waist and bum. I never felt hungry. 

There are many reasons to do a detox, but one of them is to shock yourself out of bad eating habits. I plan to stick to smoothies for breakfast and lunch, and do what I can to make our dinners healthier while not alienating my husband. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Friendsgiving in Albania

I love celebrating Thanksgiving overseas. What's not to like? Food, wine, friends, and the ability to afford to pay someone to entertain the toddler and help with clean up.

For a traditionalist Thanksgiving stickler, celebrating American holidays overseas certainly comes with challenges. Substitutions for certain ingredients are required, and last minute turkey buying is not an option. On the other hand, the likelihood of dramatic family blowouts is much, much lower.

Of the three Thanksgivings we have spent abroad, we have hosted two dinners for our friends and their children. In 2010, I spent the holiday in my 12 hour/day yoga teacher training. However, I did bring pie. Yes, I fed pie to a bunch of yoga teachers-in-training, and our guru. And I left class early so that I could make the community Thanksgiving potluck feast at Manila's American Recreation Club.

The next year, we had just returned from OB Medevac with our newborn baby, but, feeling the need to reconnect with our friends at post after four months at home, had a few people over for Thanksgiving dinner. That was probably the easiest Thanksgiving I will ever host, as I not only had help with childcare and dishwashing, but I had a cook. That year, I did not practice the tradition of burning myself while manhandling the turkey in and out of the oven.

This year we had nine adults, six children, a baby, and our housekeeper/babysitter for Thanksgiving dinner. We ordered a "turkey over 12 lbs" from AERA, and a 24 lb butterball behemoth arrived. Our Ambassador's wife saved us the trouble of trying to thaw this monster by sharing that turkeys can be cooked from the frozen state. I will never thaw a turkey again.

I started cooking on Sunday. We had invited our non-fowl eating friends to join us, so I made a mushroom gravy that was way better than its turkey pan cousin. Even my meat-loving husband loved it. Of course we also made turkey pan gravy as well. One can never have too much gravy. Or pie.

On Tuesday I made my second pie ever. My first pie was on Saturday for a friend's pre-Thanksgiving feast, and because it actually wasn't terrible I gathered my courage and tried again. Pecans cannot be found--at least not easily--in Albania, so I made a walnut pie. According to the internet, New Englanders have walnut pies at Thanksgiving all the time. I didn't know that pecans didn't go farther north than Washington, D.C. I had learned a few things from my first experience, and this pie turned out pretty darn well.

My husband had showed me how his grandmother used her thumb to make the pie crust decorative. When I was finished I couldn't recognize myself.

On Wednesday I made roasted sweet potatoes and pears from a recipe posted on Facebook by our CLO. This is amazing sweet potato dish that is much, much better than a sweet potato casserole, unless, of course, you want dessert for dinner.

Fresh cranberries are also not easily found, so, in addition to opening a can of cranberry sauce purchased from the commissary, I made an orange-lemon ginger compote. I thought it was a perfect substitute, but I'm not sure anyone else tried it. I got the recipe from a British Christmas food website, so maybe they could sense that it wasn't American. Anyway, it tasted great.

Finally, the turkey. The 24 pounder that we roasted from a frozen state. Best turkey I've ever cooked, and I'll never go back. Thank you, Anne!

We had a little drama around mid-day on Thursday when, according to the meat thermometer, it appeared that the turkey was already done. But it turned out perfectly--and fully cooked. This method seems to help avoid drying the meat out in the oven. I didn't get a picture of the turkey before my husband made these freaky cuts in it.

I did burn myself. Twice, on the forearm and wrist. I need longer oven mitts.

And here is our happy table, right before we sat down and demolished it. Everyone brought something, so we had more food than we and our children could eat.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Seven months strong

I should blog more. Obviously. I really enjoy blogging, but never seem to find enough time to do both the writing AND the editing. The secret is to not take it too seriously.

This is my English-major way of apologizing for any sloppy writing that may ensue.

We have now lived in Tirana for a little over seven moths. Last month my parents came to visit from Florida, which was wonderful. I loved sharing Tirana and the region with my family, and wish we had more time--who knew a month could go by so quickly?

A lot has changed in seven months, which shouldn't be a surprise since seven months in the FS is the equivalent to five years of stateside living. Of course, as my son grows (he turned 2 in late August), my life changes dramatically. Suddenly there's sleep being had and more time to do things other than domestic caregiving. The first day I left Kyle alone at school I went home and stared at a wall because I didn't know what to do with the time.

I have changed quite a bit as well. Nine months ago my goal was to work at the Embassy in a job similar to the one I enjoyed in Manila, and it was disappointing to arrive in Tirana and discover that EFM jobs were not as plentiful as they had been in the Philippines. Very disappointing.

However, Tirana turns out to be a post that offers plenty of work opportunities outside of the Mission. Do these jobs pay as much as the US Government? Uh, no. Are they worth it anyway. Heck, yes! Do I like being self-employed? Absolutely. Do I enjoy running all over town to cover all of my different private practice jobs? Well ... I have control over my schedule, and can at least limit the time I spend running around.

The best thing about all of these jobs is that they are all in my field, which is clinical social work. I am teaching Psychology to undergrads at the University of New York in Tirana, seeing private practice clients through my business, and doing contract work with the Peace Corps. For whatever reason, it seems like work opportunities exploded at the beginning of September.

I have also discovered, for better or for worse, that I actually like being a domestic caregiver. I enjoy spending time with my son. I like planning meals and cooking healthy food for my family. I find it rewarding to pay someone else to clean the toilet and vacuum the floor.

I have also learned that social work practice stresses me out a little bit. I know that I am playing to my strengths when I practice therapy, but after taking a three year break I am very aware of how hard a job it is to be a counselor. The qualities that make a person able to empathize and be compassionate are the same qualities that make one vulnerable to absorbing other people's pain and stress. I was never, ever significantly stressed as a CLO Assistant in Manila.

I now remember how much I emphasized boundaries to myself and my co-workers when I worked in hospice social work.

But enough of that. The journey continues, and we as a family continue to have reorganize our thinking to accommodate our free-floating lifestyle. It turns out that it is entirely possible to have the urge to travel (my husband owns up to having itchy feet) and be obsessed with having the ability to plan out all the details of one's life. The two qualities butt heads quite frequently. The good news is that because my husband and I both share this traveling bug + resistance to being super flexible, the conflict is not between the two of us, but between our family and the demands of the FS.

So, Albania is awesome, and you should come here. Julie especially misses my Dad throwing the ball to her daily, and Kyle has decided that Skype just isn't the same. It's a good thing we will be heading back to the US on R&R in a couple of months.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The 3 month slump

Argh. Does this have to happen every time? Every single time? At about three months into a new post--even if that post is DC--I begin to feel down. The three month mark is apparently when I transition from feeling like I'm on vacation to realizing that this is my new home. For now.

Two years is a really short time to be someplace you really like, and I like Tirana. In Manila, the three month slump turned into a year-long fight as problems with housing and my dislike of air pollution made me think that my slump was Manila's fault. And then we moved back to DC, and I was blindsided by the realization that I missed Manila, and wanted to "go home."

I have no home. I do have a house. Here's a picture:

I miss my house. I don't miss what I was doing while I was living there, but I miss the house being my house, with a big backyard and furniture that wasn't heavily damaged Drexel dark wood.

As a side note, I'm not complaining about the furniture. I'm rather glad that it's trashed because there's nothing my two dogs and toddler can do to it that would be our fault. Kyle IS doing a number on the blinds ....

But it's not even really the house that I'm missing, but the stability. Three years ago I wrote a blog about how I didn't think I had itchy feet. I maintain that. I do have a great desire to travel and see and experience new things, and for several months at a time so I can immerse myself in the culture. BUT, it would be nice if I could somehow do this and still be able to go back to a specific place to a job that pays the bills and my furniture. Then I could get nice and bored and ready to hit the road again in a year.

This is my home for now:

No wait, that's a Hoxha bunker.

This is nearby my home for now. Isn't it pretty?

I like Tirana. I wish we could stay and make it a home for at least five years. Five years would have been too long in Manila.

So I guess we'll keep going and see where this life takes us. And maybe convert a shipping container to a low maintenance, awesome, environmentally friendly, tiny house and put it on my parents' five acres. They won't mind.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Two months in

On Wednesday it will have been two months since we landed in Tirana, so it's time for an update.

The short story is that we still love the city and the region. Manila gave us many gifts, and one of them is the ability to appreciate everything this post has to offer. From the housing to the traffic to the weather to the air quality, from our perspective, this place rocks. I'm already sorry that Brian's status as an ELO means that we will only be here two years and cannot request an extension to three years.

Two years in a post that's a good fit is much too short. Two years in a post that's a bad fit is much too long.

Our final HHE shipment from DC arrived last week, so now I feel like we can really settle in to our house. We did a decent job with our consumables shipment, especially given that it's really hard to shop for consumables at a post that has changed so rapidly in so little time that no one's really sure what is or is not available.

As a newbie, here's what I wish I hadn't brought, and what I wish I'd brought more of:

Wish I could return it:

  • Canned tomato products. In my defense, I knew this sounded wonky, but when your favorite cooking media is a slow-cooker, a threat of unavailable tomato products must be taken seriously.
Wish I had bought more of it:
  • Peanut butter. 6 huge jars of Smucker's natural isn't going to be enough. I depsise PB with sugar in it.
  • Enchilada sauce. Only 4 jars!?? WTF? I think I told myself I would make it from scratch ...
Wish I had bought it at all:
  • soft toilet paper. In my old age I have come to appreciate high quality toilet paper. 
  • black beans - canned, dry, whatever. They don't exist here. 
  • non-sugary cereal. All they have here is museli and fifty different kinds of dessert cereal. I think the healthy breakfast cereal thing is uniquely American. 
  • body lotion. But NOT hair removal products. There's an entire aisle dedicated to hair removal, and a teeny, tiny corner of body lotion. Not a lot of dry, English skin around here. 
However, all of the above can be got around. Except maybe the black beans and the cereal. Those are hard to substitute. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Tirana, Albania

My expectations for Tirana were ... let's just say they were modest. Although there were many things I loved about our first post, I found life in Manila challenging. So when we were assigned to another hardship post--with a consumables shipment!--I kept my expectations in check.

And perhaps that is why I think everything here is just awesome. The air is clean, the food is fantastic, and my housing is relatively walkable. Most importantly, I can spend most of the day outside with my active toddler, and the only thing I have to worry about is the sun. (He's very, very, very fair, just like his Daddy, and won't wear hats, also like his Daddy.)

I'm well aware that Tirana and I are on our honeymoon, and in the coming months we'll have some fights, but the foundation of our relationship is solid. For pete's sake, I even fought with Arlington, so there's no avoiding the adjustment process, no matter how well a place meets your needs.

Although we've only been here two weeks, we've taken the opportunity to explore. Over the weekend, we joined our sponsors on a whirlwind road trip to Saranda, and earlier this week Kyle and I took a walking tour* of Tirana with other Mission newcomers.

*I'd like to take the opportunity to emphasize that we took a walking tour. We walked from Skanderberg Square to the Embassy, and more or less enjoyed the experience.

One of Hoxha's many paranoia bunkers, which are scattered throughout the country. This one is in its original location in downtown Tirana, and behind it is a piece of the Berlin Wall.

A promenade between city hall and the art museum.

Any road trip in Albania affords many opportunities for sightings of herds of road goats and cows.


The coastal road between Vlore and Sarande. Guard rails are for wimps.

In Sarande, your toddler can amuse himself by throwing rocks at Greece. Corfu is the island in the distance. As you drive farther south in Albania, the walls become white, the doors become blue, and the roadside memorials Christian.