Thursday, April 30, 2009

Who You Are vs What You Do

Quite a while ago one of my sisters introduced me to "Daily Om," a website dedicated to "nurturing mind, body and spirit." I get e-mails from them every day with thought provoking articles. Sometimes I read them right away, sometimes I put them in a folder to read/re-read later and sometimes I'm not interested so it gets deleted. that's the beauty of e-mail - I decide what I want to read and when...that's a discussion in itself for another time...

The article I read today was about realizing "You are who you are, not what you do." As usual, I didn't feel as if 100% of it applied to me, but that didn't matter since even the first couple sentences struck a cord: "Our perception of the traits and characteristics that make us who we are is often tightly intertwined with how we live our life. We define ourselves in terms of the roles we adopt, our actions and inactions, our triumphs, and what we think are failures. "

For the last couple years I have had a hard time adjusting to the fact I am no longer an officer in the United States Air Force. Ever since I was 16 years old, all I wanted was to be in the Air Force. Everything I did my last two years in High School was to get an ROTC scholarship or, preferably, to get into the Air Force Academy. Then I struggled, and I mean struggled, to graduate from USAFA, including two years of medical leave due to knee surgeries (and if I'm honest with myself, not as much training/physical therapy as should have been done). Graduating with the class of 1996 instead of 1994 was probably a good thing, for many reasons, but most of all because I felt as if I was starting over with a clean slate. No one in '96 knew how hard my freshman year had been...thus, I was given every opportunity to prove I could handle tough jobs. Whereas had I remained with '94, either I myself or others might have held me back from accomplishing as much as I was capable of - simply due to my less than stellar four degree year. (Another story for another time...)

As an aircraft maintenance officer, I felt as if I had to work harder than everyone else to prove that women could do the job just as well as men - despite the fact that I knew/know nothing about maintenance/mechanics other than what I continuously studied so as not to show my ignorance. I also kept myself apart from others so no one could accuse me of being "soft" or being too friendly with the guys. In other words, I wasn't able to be myself. For ten years, I put the AF and my career above my own needs and desires. I was so successful at putting everything else first, that I no longer knew or even recognized anything different. The way I saw it, what was good for the AF was, in fact, good for me.

Now, I don't have that anymore. I don't have the uniform to hide behind, I don't have the mission to focus on, I don't have the purpose in serving my country...So now, (and something I've been working on for the last two years) I have to figure out "who I am" separate from "what I do."

Sounds pretty easy but as I have found, it's not. At least not for me. I've gone from being a Major in the world's greatest AF to being a dependant spouse (have I mentioned how much I hate that word "dependant"...?) whose main contribution to the world is a blog and blankets (well, other crafts as well, but who besides me really cares about my scrapbooking, and family/friends can only stand so many crafts as gifts...). Doesn't do much for the whole sense of purpose and value thing...

What's my point? I'm not sure if I have one. It's just that the article made me realize, again, how much I have always defined myself by what I do/did. I was AF 24/7/365. And now, how do I define myself when I'm not really doing anything? Do I define myself as a woman who tries to do the right thing...? As someone who loves her friends and family and tries to be there for them, sometimes before they even realize they are in need...? As someone who loves creating "art" even if it's never seen outside my own home...? Yet, aren't all of those still defining myself by what I am doing..?

How do I define myself? As a work in progress... Read More......

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's Up With the PAG?

Just a short note because once again I am amazed at how self-centered the PAG is...

A couple days ago, the people of New York City were once again witness to low flying aircraft and memories of 9/11 ran swiftly through their minds. The aircraft in question was one of the 747s flown by the Presidential Airlift Group out of Andrews AFB. As a side note, the aircraft was not "Air Force One" since the President was not on board. Of course the people of New York City did not know that. What they did know was the President's aircraft was flying very low around the buildings of Manhattan and being "chased" by a fighter aircraft.

Whether or not the flight was cleared at the right levels and if mistakes were made in letting the right people know is something that will come out during the investigation. Because, of course, there is going to be an investigation.

What amazes me is the purpose for the flight. Souvenir photos for friends and family of the PAG. Souvenir photos. Though knowing the PAG, the plan was probably to sell them in their souvenir shop as well. So, in order to have "updated" or "current" photos of the 747 flying over national monuments, thousands of people were affected. And why did they really need updated photos? Has the 747, which has been in use as Air Force One since 1990, changed in the last few years? Have the monuments themselves changed?

Did no one stop to think about how a low-flying "passenger" aircraft being "chased" by fighters would affect New Yorkers? A second photo-op scheduled for Washington DC has been cancelled. Why not start in DC? After all, that's essentially the home of the PAG and the President. Plus, they could have seen how it was handled without freaking out New York's survivors of 9/11. Granted, there are survivors of 9/11 at the Pentagon and Washington DC as well, but it might not have been such a blatant reminder...who knows how it would have gone down had they done it in DC first. I just find it interesting that they chose NYC.

Bottom line, I think it was self-centered of the PAG to think only of themselves and not how a low-level flyover in close proximity to Ground Zero would possibly affect others. I know I shouldn't view the whole group based on my impressions of the PAG members I have known and worked with, but I also haven't seen anything to prove me wrong. This instance just re-enforced those impressions. Read More......

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Last day in Albania

After leaving Shkodra, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. A friend of V's husband had recommended it, though neither of our friends had ever been there. We were pleasantly surprised when the food came out. Salad and bread to begin with of course...then an amazing fish platter which looked way too big for four people. Amazingly enough, we finished just about everything on the platter - except the octopus and one lone fish no one could fit in. My favorite was the fried red fish. No idea what kind of fish it is, that's just what V called it - "red fish." I wasn't too sure about it since it looked like the whole fish was simply dropped in a pan and fried (head, eyes, tail and all), but it had a wonderful taste and consistency - just a bit crispy on the outside and tender on the inside...just thinking about it is making me hungry for it.

Following the fish platter, we had duck. The restaurant is supposedly well known for their duck. There were pictures of ducks on all the walls around us...so all I kept thinking while we were waiting was someone going outside to round up supper. When I say "duck plate" you may imagine slices of duck breast, pleasantly arranged on a platter...ah, nope. Try three little duck bodies, with the necks still attached, just siting on a white plate with a couple lettuce leaves around their little butts. Despite my hesitation based on the fact it looked like a tiny little duckling had been plucked and broiled just moments ago (which I guess it had been), I tried to eat it. I guess since it was a wild duck, it's supposed to have a special flavor but it tasted like liver to me. Since I'm not a fan of liver, V's husband ate mine. The meal ended, as usual, with a fruit plate.


On the way home I took several pictures of houses and scenery along the highway. As I had feared all week, my camera battery died so I didn't get very many. Next time, I'm bringing an extra battery or two as well as an extra memory card.

We had dinner with Valbona and her brother-in-law, packed and got up at 0400 on Saturday morning (4 Apr 09) to make our 0630 flight. It was sad to think of leaving, especially on such a historic day. Outside our hotel, everything was getting set up for a huge concert and celebration of Albania officially joining NATO. During our whole visit, throughout Tirana and in the smaller towns, there were flags and banners marking the occasion. We were amazed when we got to Frankfurt Germany that there was hardly anything on the news about Albania and Croatia joining NATO. Instead everything seemed to revolve around Pres. Obama and welcoming France back into NATO. Funny how different things seem important to different people at different times. If we had not been in Albania at the time they received their official invitation to join NATO and on the day they officially joined, we may not have even realized it happened. But one would think the major news stations would have at least mentioned it...Either way, I am glad we were there for it, even in such a small way. Read More......

Monday, April 27, 2009

Shkodra Albania

After visiting Lezhe, we drove to Shkodra. We didn't see much of the town other than driving through it. However, we drove up a mountain to Rozafa Castle and from there we could see all of Shkodra and the surrounding countryside. On one side you can see the Buna Rover and on the other side was the Drina River.

It was neat for me to see the Drina since on my 2003 Balkan trip I got to see the Drina in Bosnia-Herzogovina. I read Ivo Andric's book The Bridge on the Drina before going and actually got to have lunch next to, as well as walk on, the actual bridge from the book. As I said, it was kind of cool to see the river again in a different country. It also seemed to somehow join both trips...both were to visit with friends from the Marshall Center, both were to the Balkans and now both showed me different parts of the Drina...

Rozafa Castle seemed to take up the whole top of the mountain. The history has been traced back 4000 years to a Bronze Age settlement. Still standing are some Illyrian "Cyclopean Walls" from around 350BC. Because of its long history, the castle has had many additions over the centuries. Wandering through the different courtyards, you can see not only the Illyrian construction but Ottoman and Venetian as well. The main medieval building still standing is St Stephen's Church. At one point, after the Ottomans invaded, a minaret was added and the church was turned into a mosque.
Even though the museum inside the castle was closed, Igli had made some phone calls before we got there so we were allowed inside. Most of the items originally in the museum were plundered following the 1997 pyramid scheme collapse and resulting riots and chaos. There were however documents detailing Shkodra's history, a full-scale model of the castle and city, as well as many artifacts found in the castle and surrounding areas. On the main floor, just inside the doorway was a large sculpture of a woman feeding a child. the sculpture commemorates the Legend of Rosafa.

Rozafa Castle is "named" for the woman in the legend. The legend seems to be essentially an aid to show how important and worthy it is to put the needs of the many above the few (or in this case, above an individual).

The legend describes the initiative of three brothers who set about building the castle. They worked all day, but whatever they had built during the day, fell down at night. After this happened numerous times, they went to an oracle. The oracle advised them to make a sacrifice and then the walls would stand.

The three brothers couldn't decide whom to sacrifice. Finally, they agreed whichever wife brought them lunch the next day would be the one to be buried in the wall of the castle. They promised not to tell their wives. Yet, the two older brothers told their wives of the agreement while the youngest brother said nothing.

The next afternoon at lunch time, the brothers waited anxiously to see which wife was carrying the basket of food. It was Rosafa, the wife of the youngest brother. He explained to her what the brothers had agreed to - that she was to be sacrificed and buried in the wall of the castle so they could finish building it.

Rosafa had an infant son she would be leaving behind. In order to ensure her son's happiness, she agreed to be sacrificed on the condition they leave her right arm exposed so she could comfort her son, her right breast so she could feed him, and her right foot so she could rock his cradle.

V's parents have a painting representing the legend in the living room of their apartment, so it was nice to come full circle having seen the painting on our first night in Albania and seeing the castle on our last day. Read More......

Lezhe Albania

On our last full day in Albania, we visited Lezhe and Shkodra. Lezhe is about 77km north of Tirana. On the way there, we met up with a friend of Igli's for coffee. Then we went to see Skanderbeg's tomb.

Lezhe is important to Albania due in part to the League of Lezhe. In 1444, Skanderbeg brought the Albanian princes and mountain tribes together in Lezhe. They agreed to join forces to fight the Ottomans. Skanderbeg was elected commander of the joint forces. For the next 25 years or so Skanderbeg, and the Albanian forces under his command, managed to hold off the Ottoman empire essentially giving Europe time to prepare for the onslaught. Many historians credit Skanderbeg with saving Europe and Christianity from the Ottoman Empire.

After Skanderbeg's death in 1468, he was buried in St Nicholas Cathedral in Lezhe, where he had brought the tribes together for the League of Lezhe. When the Ottoman forces eventually occupied Lezhe, 12 years or so after Skanderbeg's death, they dug up Skanderbeg's bones and used them as talismans or good luck charms. In the early 1980s, what remained of the church was incorporated into a monument to Skanderbeg. The walls of the church remain, as well as one "painting" from the original church. The tomb of Skanderbeg is marked by a marble slab and replicas of his helmet and sword. There is also a bust of Skanderbeg with a large Albanian flag mosaic behind it. The symbol on the Albanian flag, the double eagle, was taken from Skanderbeg's family crest.

As mentioned in a previous post, I found it very interesting that the communists would make the effort to help preserve the memory of someone whose main goal in life was to create, and protect, a unified Albania. Yet, they seemed to realize that Skanderbeg was so important to Albanians that it would be better to help create monuments to remember him rather than to try to erase him from their memories. The latter would more likely have made him an even larger icon.
Read More......

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Pasta Vongole

Vongole...Vongole...Vongole - this is a very cool word, exotic even. Especially when it's said in Albanian (or in Italian with an Albanian accent)...Who would ever think something that sounds so interesting would be so disastrous?

As I mentioned previously, the night we went to Durres and had dinner, V's husband talked me into trying the Pasta Vongole. Turns out "vongole" is Italian for clam...turns out clams and I don't agree too much...

So, starting at around 0230 while my darling husband was safe in snooze-land, I was at the beginning of a very long, arduous journey of "recovering" from food poisoning. Or at the very least a horrible collision between my delicate stomach and yucky, disgusting gray blobs that are loosely termed "clams."

While being sick is never fun, it's especially bad when you're stuck in a hotel room for one of only four days in a new country. Luckily, V had made sure we had reservations in a really nice hotel, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

I eventually realized that time wasn't on my side (as in, as the day was passing, I still wasn't getting any better) so the men went and got me some medicine. By early evening, I was able to go to the park for a short stroll with the others. We then went to their apartment for dinner. V made lasagna and her mother made another traditional Albanian dish (it looked good - yogurt, meat, cheese, etc...). Unfortunately, I could only pick at the lasagna and didn't even try anything else except for bread and water. Despite that, it was a nice dinner and we enjoyed spending more time with V's family. We had brought several small gifts for everyone so we presented them after dinner. It seemed as if everyone liked what we had chosen for them...

Most of the stuff we had planned to do on Thursday, the day I was sick, we moved to Friday in hopes I would be recovered enough to travel. Luckily, I was...I'll tell you all about it in the next post. Read More......

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Family Heirlooms (Part 2)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I received some "heirlooms" from my Aunt in Germany. Things that used to belong to my German grandmother and grandfather. Nothing very exciting, embroidered handkerchiefs, glasses and leather glass cases, wallets and change purses, bottles of my grandmother's perfume, stuff like that.

I decided to take all of it with me to KY and give it to my mother. I felt as if it should have been given to her and it wasn't really my place to keep it from her or make the decision of who gets what. Despite having thought about it and discussed it 9and knowing it was the right thing to do) I was nervous about how it would go. I didn't want to upset her, remind her of all the bad stuff surrounding why she didn't have anything in the first place, or find out that I had made things worse between her and my aunt by accepting these things.

It actually went very well. I decided to get it over with early, so I brought the two bags out the first night. I figured if she got mad, that would give me time to smooth things over. Instead, she looked at some of the things but actually didn't appear too interested. She said I should keep everything and share it with my siblings. She said if she kept it, it would only go in a box for us to go through when she died. Her one comment that showed it got to her a bit was stating that most of the stuff was essentially "junk" and didn't cost my aunt anything to share it with me. She rhetorically asked, "where's the jewelry? Where are the Krugerrands? Where are the things that might have lasted and/or been worth something?" Alas, I am quite sure those things were sold years ago...

I took everything over to my younger sister's house on my way out of KY. We spent some time going through it and she picked a couple things she wanted to keep. Since she has a 2-year old and another on the way, she didn't want to take anything that could be broken or destroyed by little hands. When I see my older sister, hopefully this summer, we'll go through it all again and see if she wants any of it. I'm not sure what I'll do about my brother. I have something from my grandfather that I really would like to keep, but I think it would be nice for my brother to have (most of the other stuff is kind of "girly"). I guess I'll hold onto it until he is ready for it, or at the very least we have enough of a relationship that we can see each other face to face and/or he won't return a letter/package I send him.

Speaking of relationships, in a previous post I discussed how neither my older sister nor younger brother were talking with me. While I was in KY, my sister called and we talked for two hours! She also called twice while I was driving home. Hopefully, this will keep up. We have tentatively planned for her to visit me here and for me to go to MN to help her pack up the house before she moves. I'm keeping my fingers crossed (makes typing difficult...) that one or both visits happen. In addition, since my brother is not talking with me, I didn't even think of letting him know I would be in town. When he spoke with my mother and step-father, he asked both of them how come they hadn't told him. I'm taking that as progress. Maybe when I go back for Mother's Day, I'll get to see him and we'll see if he is ready to bury the hatchet. Druck die Daumen! (crossing the fingers German style - which is actually, "press your thumbs"...) Read More......

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Marshall Center


Several years ago (2003), I was incredibly lucky to be selected to attend the Leaders for the 21st Century course at the George Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen Germany. The Leaders Course has been combined with another course now, but back then it was a 9 week course. Nine weeks in Garmisch, one of the most beautiful places in the world, doing what I had always dreamed of - working with people from different countries, getting to know them and their stories, learning about national security, peacekeeping, etc.

For those who don't know the Marshall Center, their mission (from their website) is: to create a more stable security environment by advancing democratic institutions and relationships, especially in the field of defense; promoting active, peaceful security cooperation; and enhancing enduring partnerships among the nations of North America, Europe and Eurasia.

I was one of four Americans (two AF and two Army) in a group of around 180 people from maybe 40 (?) countries. We were split up into seminars of about 15 people each. Each day we would have lessons in the seminar room as well as mass briefings in Plenary Hall. Both rooms were equipped with earphones and all lessons/briefings were interpreted real-time into English, German and Russian. In addition, there were readings (homework) for each day.

V was sent as a representative of Albania and was one of the women in my seminar. We hit it off right away and the friendship grew from there. V's sister was going to school in Munich at the time, so we visited her over a couple weekends. Those weekends were so much fun. Picture a group of 6 or 7 people, speaking English, German, Albanian and even Italian. Yet, we were able to understand each other and have a really good time. I also got to meet V's cousin, her (now) brother-in-law and other close friends. [On the recent trip to Albania, I got to meet the cousin's mother - pretty cool.]

We also did some field trips from the Marshall Center such as a visit to Dachau and then to Vienna for briefings at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Several of us also took weekend trips to see Europe. We went to Italy one weekend and saw Venice, Bologna, and Verona, and on another weekend went to Innsbruck.

In addition to V, I am still in touch with several others. I made some good friends during my time at the Marshall Center and hope we will continue to be friends for a very long time.

Remind me and sometime I'll post about my trip through the Balkans in 2003 to visit some of my Marshall Center friends...

I'll be in KY for the next 4-5 days so won't be posting again until I get back.
Read More......

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Durres Albania

After spending the morning in Kruja we went to Durres for a short tour and dinner. Durres is about 30 minutes from Tirana on the main (only) highway.

My friend V was born in Durres and spent the first six years of her life living there with her grandparents. Why she lived with her grandparents is actually a very interesting story. Her father started working as a translator when he was just 17. He was very good at his job speaking fluent German and Chinese among other languages. To stay on top of things (vocabulary, etc.) he read a lot. Since the communists limited the types of books available, he asked some friends to send him some books from Germany. They sent dictionaries and other books to help him with his work. One of those books was Freud. Somehow the Communists found out and he was punished. His punishment was being sent up into the mountains to live for 8 years. The mountains were not healthy for a young baby so V was sent to live with the grandparents in Durres and her parents visited every month. It's like something out of a book, yet the people who lived it are right in front of you. Amazing.

Durres is a very old city. As in ancient. As in founded in 627 BC! One of the amazing things about Durres is the history right in the middle of it. You can walk down the street and up a small hill and right in front of you is a 1st or 2nd Century Roman Amphitheater. It is supposed to be the largest in the Balkans and is thought to have seated 20,000 people. It wasn't discovered until the 1960s so there are houses all around it, and one or two decrepit looking houses are actually inside the fenced off area. There are some other Roman ruins in other parts of the city, one set we looked at was a ring of pillars. Or what used to be a ring. Now there are only 5 or 6 pillars still standing. Turns out they were planning on building in that area when they discovered the ruins. The contractors tried to hide it/cover it up (so they could keep building) and destroyed many of the pillars before they were stopped. The mayor supposedly gave them permission to continue but the Prime Minister over-ruled him.

This debate really got me to thinking about how to appreciate and save our past while still making room for our present and our future. My first thought was "how in the world can they destroy such a historical find?" My next few thoughts concerned how many similar finds must have been destroyed either unknowingly or because the builders didn't care. Then I realized that with such an old civilization, there must be things of historical significance everywhere. Centuries worth of people living in the same area must at some point have cleared away the old in order to build new and "better" living, working, farming areas. How in the world, especially in such a small country, do you decide what to keep and what to "throw away" in order to allow growth and expansion for the people living today?

We also drove up a small mountain to see the former home of King Zog. Ahmet Zogu was elected as Albania's first president in 1925 but then declared himself King Zog in 1928. King Zog had a palace in Durres which was supposedly very fine in its day, having been decorated and furnished by his aristocratic wife. Unfortunately, in 1997, following the collapse of the pyramid schemes, the palace, which had been turned into a national museum, was targeted by vandals and the many paintings, furnishings, etc. were stolen. Now it sits as a sad reminder of what used to be. V and her husband seemed genuinely distraught at the sight - sad their own countrymen are/were capable of such unnecessary damage and sad that part of their history is gone forever.

We had dinner at one of their favorite Italian restaurants along the beach. Salad, pizza and pasta. As we already had experience with the size of the pizza from our night in Milan, I planned on just having a couple slices of his. V's husband talked me into trying some of the pasta too. When the pasta arrived, there were nasty little gray clumps with stinger like things sticking out of one end. Turns out, they were little clams. Now I only like clams when they are the Howard Johnson's type of fried clams. As in, so much breading and dipping sauce that you can't really tell what it actually tastes like. These were not Ho-Jo's clams. I ate some of it to be polite and then handed it off to Tom in exchange for his pizza.

Following dinner, we walked along the beach for a bit. Not in the sand, they have a paved area similar to a boardwalk. We stopped for some gelato, walked a bit more and then headed back to Tirana, getting to bed around 2300.
Read More......

Monday, April 13, 2009

Kruja Albania

On 1 Apr 09, our second day in Tirana, we went to Kruja (pronounced Kru-yah).

The day started out with coffee, of course. My husband has really taken a liking to Espresso, though I hope he will never get to I's regular 10-12 Espressos a day.

The drive to Kruja was relatively quick. It's about 32 km from Tirana. That's not really what made the trip so short. Driving in Albania is an art form and requires courage, a lot of courage. As "I" said when we first got there, "the only rule is there are no rules." There is only one main road, the "highway." The other roads are a crapshoot, some are OK and some are downright terrible. Most of the cars seem to be four-wheel drive or off-road capable types of cars -with good reason. No matter the condition of the road, they go fast. Very fast. And they take the art of passing to the next level. It doesn't matter if you can see the expression on the face of the driver heading toward you, if you want to pass the car in front of you, just go for it. The car you are passing will slow down enough for you to get in front of them, and/or the car coming toward you will swerve a bit to allow room for three cars while you're passing. This gets a bit trickier when there isn't enough room for the other car to swerve or make way. Not that this stops people from passing...my husband says he's ready to try driving the next time we visit - I don't think I'll ever be ready to drive in Albania.

On the way into Kruja, we drove past the cafe/bar where Pres Bush had coffee during his visit to Albania in 2007. The changed to name of the cafe to the "George W. Bush Cafe." V's husband wanted to stop and have coffee which would have been cool, but we were on a timeline so V could teach at 1400.

Kruja is a very historical city for Albania. It's over 800 years old and is considered to be the center of Albanian resistance to the Turks. It was the site of a huge battle, in 1450, between the Albanians (joined together by Skanderbeg) and an Ottoman army that outnumbered them 5 to 1. Skanderbeg is considered to have saved Europe and Christianity by keeping the Ottomans from crossing into Europe.

They took us to the Citadel in Kruja and the Skanderbeg Museum which is located in the castle. On the way up to Kruja Castle, built between the 5th and 6th century, we walked through the old bazaar. I really wish we had had more time so we could stop to look at everything. It amazed me that there was so much in the bazaar, especially since it seemed to be in the middle of nowhere on the side of a huge mountain. I could have happily bought quite a few things to remember this trip, but we didn't have time (or the available weight in our suitcase).
The Skanderbeg museum was built in 1982. It struck me as out of character for the communists to build a museum in memory of the man who gave Albania it's nationalism.Wouldn't it make more sense if the communists had tried to erase Skanderbeg from the Albanian mindset? Instead, it seems they realized that Skanderbeg was such a huge national hero and would only grow more popular if they tried to erase the memory of him.

We received a private tour of the museum with an English speaking guide. In addition, quite a few things in the museum had descriptions/explanations in English. It was very well set up and showed a lot of the history for the area. I was a complete geek and took a picture of the bathroom in the museum. It's probably not very cool to talk about bathrooms and toilets but I'm going to. If you don't like it, skip ahead.... Everything I had read about Albania before our trip talked about how it was still a bit behind the rest of the world and not to be surprised by hole-in-the-floor toilets (and to bring your own TP). As I had seen/used these before (during my trip to Bosnia and Serbia) I was prepared. However, everything we had seen so far was pretty modern (at least compared to holes in the floor) so I was surprised when the museum had the old kind of toilets. Despite the hole in the floor thing, it was very clean and no big deal...

Next to the citadel was the Ethnographic Museum. It was essentially the home of "rich" people from the 14-15th century and set up to show the visitor traditional Albanian life. We got to see tools they used for grinding corn, weaving and pressing grapes as well as how the home would have been set up at that time - bedrooms, eating area, etc.

After the museums, we drove back so V could teach her marketing class at the University of New York in Tirana while her husband, Tom and I went to lunch. We went to the restaurant where V and her husband met. It was a very nice, small Italian restaurant. We started with salad and these incredible sauteed mushrooms. They actually tasted like some kind of meat - very, very tasty. The "first plate" was three types of pasta. The "second plate" was "shoulder of beef" and potatoes. We finished with a fruit plate of sliced apples, oranges and kiwi. As usual, there was wine and water with lunch and followed by espresso for the men. As we were leaving, we were told someone who worked for V's husband, when he was the Minister of the Interior, had paid for our lunch. I didn't think stuff like that really happened...it was almost like being a celebrity.

After all that walking and food, all I wanted was a nap. So V's husband went to get some work done and we collapsed for an hour at the hotel. We met up again at 1800 and drove to Durres. Durres will be the next post...
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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Too Familiar?

I read a blog post today simply because the title caught my eye. The title was "Familiarity Breeds Disrespect." The funny thing is, the post itself was about treating yourself and others right. What I thought it was going to be about it completely different.

When I read "Familiarity Breeds Disrespect" I immediately thought of President and Mrs Obama. Why? Because I feel that in their quest to be the everyman's First Family, they have degraded the office of the President. The President, like any good leader, is not there to make friends. The President's job is to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." No where in the oath does it state the need to be liked by everyone, to be on late-night TV shows, to be on the cover of magazines every month, etc. Seeing our President on a late-night show with no tie on as if he is just some community organizer instead of the President of the United States was a sad moment for me. (I won't even get into my thoughts on the First Lady being on magazine covers or in ads for Talbots...)

Maybe it is the military part of me coming out, but to me a leader shouldn't be part of the masses. If a leader is part of the masses, the masses tend to stop following and start saying "yeah, but" or "how come?" or "why should I?" a lot more often. And why not, if the leader is part of the group, then what makes them so special? What makes them able to make decisions better than anyone else?

Being "just one of the guys" and allowing, even encouraging, familiarity takes away from the specialness of the office. The man was elected to lead our country. He should remember the Presidency is an office to be held in high-esteem and if he doesn't see it that way, soon enough, others won't either. Read More......

Friday, April 10, 2009

First Day in Tirana

We arrived at Mother Teresa International Airport in Tirana on 31 Mar 09.

My husband exchanged some Euro for Albanian Lek at the counter in the airport while I went out to meet V and I. We had been a little nervous whether they would be there to meet us since there had been quite a few changes to our travel itinerary and we hadn't been able to get a phone call to go through. Note to self: don't book flights to essentially third-world countries on airlines floating above bankruptcy.

After checking in at the hotel, Tirana International, and the first of many, many coffees (where we were informed we wouldn't be allowed to pay for anything), we drove to see their son, D, and a bit of Tirana. One of the first things we saw was a car with an Illinois license plate! Small world! If only we'd had the camera out to snap a picture...Throughout the trip, I think we ended up seeing plates from about 15-16 different states (NY, AK, NJ, TX, etc...my husband probably remembers them all).

We had the first of many, many Italian meals at "La Tavernetta." We started with the salad bar - not the usual salad bar, most things were very fresh but dipped in, sitting in, or soaked in olive oil. V served me to ensure we tried everything and got the best stuff. It tasted much better then it looked. After salad, we had pasta with prawns (little beady eyes and antenna included), followed with a chicken dish for the men and finished with a fruit plate.

After lunch, we went to the apartment to pick up their. We met V's father and sat for a while talking and drinking some very good (in my husband's opinion) whiskey. Then we went to the mall for more coffee. From the inside, the mall could have been in any state in the US - different stores of course, but otherwise pretty similar. Following coffee, we drove up one of the mountains to get a good view of Tirana. We actually went up to the hotel we were originally booked in for the trip last fall that never happened. Thank goodness we didn't stay there - very nice place with great views, but way out of town and the roads were horrible! We would have been stuck.
The night ended with a dinner of traditional Albanian specialties made by V's mother. We started with a cheesy spinach crepe dish and salad. Then, wow, this amazing northern Albanian specialty made of meat, cheese, yogurt - I have no idea. It was served in a dish for two people and was incredible. The name sounds something like "fergess" but I don't know how to spell it or what's really in it. Then there were Albanian sausages, vegetables, and a pork dish. Then, as if that wasn't enough, we finished with a platter of three different Albanian desserts - a northern Albanian cake which was really good - not very sweet but a nice texture and good flavor, Baklava, and "Kadaif" which made me think of worms squirming out of phyllo dough but was actually quite tasty. I was corrected in that the worm-like noodle things were some kind of spaghetti dessert thing ("vermiccelli-like pastry"). I am not describing it right and if we hadn't been in V's parent's home, I might have gotten a picture of it (the picture here comes from Wikipedia). Regardless, it was good. What was really amazing is that V's mom worked until around 5 PM, then went home and made all this stuff. We started dinner around 7:30 PM (which turned out to be one of the earlist dinners we had while there) so she didn't have a whole lot of time, but managed to have a beautiful table set and wonderful food. I was quite impressed.

V's parents are really interesting. The type of people you can spend hours talking with and constantly learn something new. It helped, of course, that they both spoke English and German (add in Italian and Greek and you still haven't covered all their languages...). We spent a lot of time talking about politics - both in Albania and the US. The Albanian elections are coming up in June so there were many discussions concerning their party and the current administration. We also talked quite a bit about Albania joining NATO, which was set to offically happen the day we left (4 Apr) and there were flags and signs all over Tirana celebrating that "miracle of freedom."

We got back to the hotel around 10:30 PM. Needless to say, the day was quite long, especially after having spent the day before in Milan walking around quite a bit and then going to the airport pretty early for the Tirana flight. Surprisingly, the bed and pillows in Tirana were the most comfortable of the whole trip and despite all the coffee and copious amounts of wine, whiskey, raki and water throughout the day, we slept very well. Read More......

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Family Heirlooms

While in Dusseldorf, we spent some time with my aunt. No big deal, right? Wrong!

She is my mother's only sibling. Her older sister. They don't speak. In fact, they are in some kind of on-going legal fight about money and an apartment my grandfather gave them. Some days, I think he must not have known his daughters very well (or was more interested in the tax break than in the future) because no one could think asking those two women to share anything is a good idea, let alone something that involves money.

So, for quite a while I didn't speak to my aunt either, out of loyalty to my mother. Then I decided that was stupid. Their issues are not mine and have nothing to do with me. Right? Wrong!

I started e-mailing my aunt again. I called her once and she called at Christmas. Then, when I visited my mother in January, she told me the aunt had sent my former step-father a letter asking for information about my mother's finances and saying she could have gotten the information from me but didn't want to put me in the middle. Hello!? Just by saying that, she put me in the middle. Needless to say, my mother was not happy. She said I was making it more difficult for them to finalize the apartment issue. Huh?

So, back to this recent visit. My aunt gave me several things from my grandparents who have both passed away. Quite a bit actually. Stuff for me and to share with my two sisters. No big deal, right? Wrong!

One of the things my mother holds against her sister is that she supposedly got my grandmother, who had Alzheimer's and was in a nursing home, to sign over my grandparent's apartment and everything in it to my aunt. My aunt then promptly sold it and kept all the money. Did I mention my aunt has declared bankruptcy twice and is not supposed to have any income? So where did the money go? Where did the furniture, books, paintings, etc. go? That's what my mother would like to know.

I know the answer to some of that now after having visited. Some of the paintings and a little of the furniture sits in my aunt's apartment. As for the other stuff, I can only guess that she sold it. She did keep a lot of knick-knacks: purses, handkerchiefs, eye glasses, etc. Not very exciting stuff, but when you have nothing from your grandparents, even the little stuff means a lot.

My husband and I talked about it and decided the best way to deal with this is to give everything to my mom and let her decide what to do with it. That of course means I have to talk to her about the visit and will also bring up the hard feelings she has about my aunt having all this stuff in the first place. Then, if she goes to the lawyers about it (after all, me having it from my aunt is proof that my aunt had it), my aunt will know I gave it to my mother. How did I get into the middle of something that doesn't really concern me?

I'm going to see my mother in a next week so I have some time to gear up for the argument. Hopefully, it will go better than I think... Read More......

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dusseldorf

One of the best things about going to Germany is the feeling of coming home. No matter how long it has been since my last visit, when I get to Dusseldorf, I feel as if I really belong. Which is funny since I don't really. Belong, that is. I lived there for a year or two after I was born and then again for another year when I was in first grade. So, if I belong anywhere, wouldn't it be in Richmond KY where I grew up?

Yet, there it is. I go to Germany and I am happy. Happier than I am in most other places. Even my husband mentioned he hasn't seen me that happy in quite a while. Which is a feat since it was wicked cold and raining pretty much the whole time we were there. I didn't care, what's a little cold and rain when you're in Germany?

I think part of it is that I have such great memories of living there. Granted, most 5 or 6 year olds don't have much trauma in their lives (God willing), but my parents had just gotten divorced and I had been moved to another country to live with people I didn't really know. You would think there would have been some trauma. But all I remember is feeling loved, important, happy...Pretty cool things to remember, I'd say.

Of course, I'm sure part of the good feeling now as an adult is that I get very well taken care of when I visit. I usually stay with my uncle who drives me everywhere I want to go or ensures I know which train to take and where to get it. It also helps that my aunt lives within walking distance in the same house I lived in way back when. Add to that my mother's best friend from childhood is there and I enjoy hanging out with her too.

Actually, the most fun we had was going to dinner (waffles?) at Maedi's house and then going on a pub crawl. Yup, a pub crawl in Dusseldorf. And we didn't skimp and go into the Altstadt where all the pubs are lined up in a row with tables and service outside on the road. We went to little pubs with lots of character, including the oldest pub in Dusseldorf (Germany even?). I think it started in 1442 or something like that. Crazy to think of a pub in service before our country was even discovered!

I did learn that Germans have a different idea of "it's just around the corner" from me. The first pub we walked to was "just around the corner" and 15 minutes later we were still walking. I guess you build up a thirst that way. Plus, it was nice being outside and moving so I'm not complaining, just mentioning the differences in perceptions. On the other hand, the Germans found it funny that we give "distances" by time. As in "how far away is St Louis?" gets answered with "20-25 minutes" more often than with the actual distance.

Last thought on Germany, isn't it funny how you can block out the not-so-good parts of things and only remember the good? Staying with my uncle for all these years, I didn't remember that he only had a pull out couch - or that it was a twin. Maybe something I might have wanted to mention to my husband before a 6-day stay. Then, maybe I could have mentioned the shower. You know, the German kind of showers that isn't really a shower? Just a bath tub with a shower head on the side that you have to hold up to get wet and try not to spray the whole bathroom at the same time? Hmm, might have been good to mention that as well. Needless to say, Tom was not wicked excited at the prospect of staying there for 6 nights so we ended up staying in a hotel the night of his birthday and our last night - to make it easier to get to the airport of course... Read More......

Monday, April 6, 2009

Home

My husband and I recently went on a whirlwind, 10-day, three-country, European vacation. We just got back yesterday and all I can say is, it's good to be home!

Xena is being totally clingy and I can't get 2 feet away from her without her whining pitifully...she is currently sitting on my arm making the typing quite difficult. The funny thing is, for the last year I have wanted one or both of them to be a "lap cat" and now realize, as great as it is to feel loved, it also makes doing anything a bit harder.

After I have a chance to marshall my thoughts, and have both hands to type with, I'll start posting about the trip ... Read More......