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.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Grief, Trauma, Anne, and the Foreign Service

It is hard for me to articulate how I am grieving for Anne Smedinghoff, who's death yesterday covered my Facebook feed in black ribbons and shattered my small corner of the Foreign Service community. I knew Anne. I am not her close friend or family member, but I was connected to her in many ways. She was was one of my husband's 151st A-100 cohorts. I met her several times at various 151 get togethers and happy hours. I recall sharing a beer with her and talking about Chicago. I remember when my close friend told us that she was going to meet Anne in Australia for a cross country bike tour. I have heard her name spoken many times by my husband, who was proud to serve alongside such a wonderful person, and remarkable diplomat. I remember her smile.

She made an impression on me despite my only knowing her by association. What a fantastic public affairs representative she must have been. What a loss for this country and its diplomatic mission. What an insensible tragedy for her family.

It is impossible to believe that she died--that she was killed by violence while serving her country. I know many people who are currently serving in AIP, and many more who are going to serve there later this year. We are not prepared to lose people by violence in the Foreign Service, and yet, in the last year, we have lost many. The FS is not armed. Its personnel always travel with skilled military convoys. But there it is--the diplomatic corps is small, but is serving right alongside the military.

Today I recognize in myself symptoms of grief and trauma, and know that I am sharing these feelings with the FS community, and in particular, the 151st A-100 and anyone who had the honor of serving with Anne. It is clear from Secretary Kerry's statement that he is also grieving. We are all in a state of disbelief, shock, and for many of us, the implicit fear for the safety of our loved ones. Anne life was significant, and her death cuts us all close to the heart.,0,389656.story

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


I'm not much of a list maker--they usually end up forgotten on the counter along with any coupons I may have casually obtained. However, I find lists to be incredibly useful for organizing my thoughts--both task oriented and abstract.

So, in anticipation of our transfer to Albania, I'm going to share a list of my expectations for the move: those I'm looking forward to, and those of which I'm afraid.

The Good

1. Help, in the form of a helper. We've already hired our housekeeper/babysitter, who I hope will still be waiting for us when we arrive. I am just about foaming at the mouth at not being able to take a yoga class, go the gym, or work at my computer without interruption, much less teach yoga, volunteer, or otherwise exercise my brain beyond being a full time mama.

2. Work. EFM jobs are scarce in Tirana, and so I'm not holding out much hope of being able to work at the Embassy. However, that reality has forced me to seriously consider developing a portable career beyond teaching yoga.

3. House. That is, to really be able to settle in for two years, and the return of our HHE.

4. Albania, Europe, and the Balkans. Never have I so looked forward to the travel opportunities that will be at our fingertips, and hope that neighboring Italy will be enough bait for our friends and family to visit.

5. Mountains. Apparently we have a view of a small mountain range from the back of our house. Heaven!

6. Space. The density of NoVa and DC was initially unwelcome after two years in Manila. Thank gosh for the wonderful parks in this area, and I hope that Tirana will offer similar natural comforts.

7. Baby love. Like Filipinos, Albanians love children, and sweet Kyle's a flirt.

The Bad (maybe)
I have no idea what I will find in Tirana, so these are just fears.

1. Air pollution. People talk about the city being polluted, but I can't believe it. After Manila, I think only China could impress me.

2. Feeling trapped in my house. Will the area be walkable? Driveable? Will not speaking Albania turn out to be a significant problem? Will leaving my house be such a chaotic experience that I end up hanging out on the compound due to exhaustion?

3. Size of the expat community. Nearly everyone who's been in Tirana really enjoyed the post, and I'm not detecting a lot of hedging. However, it is a smaller post--about 1/6 the size of Manila, so I don't know what to expect.

4. Work. I was able to accomplish everything I wanted to accomplish in Manila, and earn money. Will the same be true in Tirana?

5. Family. It has been wonderful to spend so much time with my friends and family, and witness how attached Kyle has become to my parents, and vice versa. As far as I'm concerned, the travel time to Tirana is a breeze compared to the 26+ hour ordeal that was traveling to Manila, but not everyone has that perspective, nor is everyone as comfortable with air travel.

6. Groceries, illness, and ease of errand-doing. Tirana is a 20% hardship with consumables, so I expect that all the above will present difficulties.

What will I think of my list a year from now? Hopefully I'll remember I wrote this list. :)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Musings of a reluctant mover

In my luxurious life as an EFM, I look forward to dragging my reluctant bum away from yet another home. A home that, once again, I will have spent five months resisting, one month enjoying, and four months freaking out about leaving.

This life would be so much easier if I didn't have dogs, child, cars, or any material goods whatsoever. Of course, such unencumbered and unaccompanied lives have their own challenges, and, all things considered, I would not choose that for myself.

SO, once again, we prepare for packout. Do other people stress out about not having access to a rocking chair for two months? Do they stay up at night wondering if their dog will not be allowed to re-board the plane in Vienna because the Austrians use a 15 digit chip reader instead of a 10 digit reader? Do they spend a great deal of time wondering if they should ship crates of tomato paste to their new homes?

Probably not. Unless they also drag their reluctant bums around the world every year or three.

There are many gaps of support in the FAM, the FS regulations for everything domestic. For example, we couldn't sell our truck in Manila without taking a huge loss (as in, $10K). But even though we were required to spend a year in DC for training, we were only allotted one car shipment, which we used to bring the truck home. The truck is just about sold, and for a good price for both buyer and seller--yay--but now we worry about buying a car in Albania. We could of course buy a new car from somewhere in Europe, but then won't we be in the same boat when we are leaving Albania? The boat where your car is too expensive for both the locals and the Embassy community, and you anticipate at least six months of training in NoVA, where you will need a car? Sigh.

There are also many strengths, most of which, having been back in the US for almost a year, I've forgotten about. But I remember feeling pretty well taken care of, despite our housing adventures. This time we have been assigned a 3 bedroom home where we will likely have enough room to unpack, and a guest room, which is all I want from my life in the FS. That, and a good babysitter who will also do the vacuuming.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A jet-lagged FS family walks into America ...

A woman walks into a bar and orders a hard cider, then looks at a menu. She learns that the cider she just ordered was $15, and has a minor panic attack. Then she sees that the cheapest meal on the menu is a $12 sandwich.

A couple go to Sunday brunch in a restaurant with their baby. The baby gets tired of sitting and decides he needs to walk around and visit people. The couple get the stink eye from their fellow brunchers.

A man walks into Harris Teeter to buy five staple items: milk, lettuce, coffee, bread, and chicken. He leaves Harris Teeter wondering what happened to his $50.

A woman pushes a stroller through a shopping area with her two dogs and incredibly adorable, blue-eyed baby. People repeatedly stop to gush over the dogs.

A man discussing pop culture with his classmates asks, "What's a snooki?"