Friday, September 15, 2017

How our days go

A view from our balcony
We have begun to fall into a predictable daily routine and rhythm of life. The first two days of school, the kids were still jet lagged and extremely unhappy about being woken up. So after that they were much more motivated to go to bed early and we've been doing much better. Usually we wake up around 6:00 when it starts to get light, and read Calvin & Hobbes (or something, but that's the current favorite) until breakfast - cereal, fruit, and scrambled eggs. There is tons of amazing fruit all around, especially stone fruits are ripe and in season just now.

Pazari i Ri, recently renovated - yellow building at right is Stephen Center, where we stayed one summer

We leave the house around 7:20 for the 1-mile walk to school. It's a gentle downhill to the canal/river, then a few more blocks uphill, and our best time so far has been 28 minutes! The time passes faster with stories, questions, or verbal games. The kids are complaining a lot less now than they did last week!

After I drop them at school (Terry usually walks with us too), Terry and I grab a quick coffee before he heads to his office and head back home. It's a nice time to catch up with each other. On the way home I usually do the grocery shopping, then at the house putter around with whatever I have on my to-do list for the day.

Our hosts' grapevine
At 3:00 or so I head out to pick up the kids again. The walk home is leisurely and can take almost an hour, with stops for a snack or if we need to use a bathroom at a coffeeshop on the way.

Pazari i Ri, on the way home
Eventually they'll be wearing uniforms with the school colors and logo, but at the moment they just wear their own clothes. Shorts on the days they have P.E.

Close to the school
They are fascinated by the few stray dogs we see around, which all have ear tags and look pretty well-fed. We speculated that people at the restaurants give them scraps of food and water. I told them about stray dogs I've seen in other places that are skinny and dirty, and Gabe asked me why I never took them to a vet, because wouldn't that be a good thing to do? Too true...

He also asked about an elderly man we've seen sitting and begging near the new mosque, and wanted to know how much food the man could buy if we gave him five bucks. We looked at posted menus nearby and saw that he could buy 10 pieces of pizza, or five loaves of bread. G also wondered if the man could maybe collect scrap metal and make it into things that he could sell. We haven't seen him for a few days now though so I'm not sure if the $5 plan will go into effect or not.

Val loves being in school, even though it seems like she gets hit on the head with a basketball just about every day at recess, but she reports that she's getting lots of education and can't WAIT to be given homework! These first 2 weeks have been mostly getting settled in and learning about each other, some assessment (testing) and figuring out the routines of the school.

Today our host downstairs was harvesting the very ripe grapes from his vine, and I wonder if he's planning to make raki (grape brandy)? It's very traditional here. It's been a bit torturous walking past those grapes multiple times a day, not so much because of the wasps that hang around them all the time, but because they look so delicious! Our hosts gave us two bunches on the first day and they were so good.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

The Familiar Strange

There is a saying that anthropologists like to repeat, but which I now find has been attributed to sociologists, poets, and artists as well - that our work is meant to render the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. In fact this was the theme of the American Anthropological Association meetings in Denver two years ago.

This arrival in Albania has been strangely familiar. But also familiarly strange. In contrast to our arrival in 2010, when Gabriel was a wee baby and Valerie a not-quite-verbal toddler, it has been so, so easy. Having the kids in school but no steady job leaves me with loads of unstructured time at home. We have a lot of friends here already, and we know where to buy food.

On Monday after dropping the kids off at school I wandered around the center of the city for another two hours or so until my feet and legs ached, visiting many old haunts - streets and parks and bridges that hold so many memories. But without a stroller in front and a baby strapped to my chest the distances seem so much shorter! I walked by the store where I first went grocery shopping seven years ago, when I didn't even know the word for eggs (vezë). It looks the same.

A lot of things have changed. The city is far, far cleaner than I remember and I remember hearing about an anti-litter campaign a couple years ago when we came for vacation. There are new buildings completed and others going up; the walking mall in Skenderbeg square has been completely remodeled. An enormous mosque is under construction near the parliament buildings. Near where we are staying, the Pazari i Ri (New Market) has also been completely remodeled, with whimsical sculptures of storks made out of twigs at every entrance, and the only rose-sculpted ice cream in the city available there (this is a thing, apparently).

On the weekend we took the kids to the municipal swimming pool, which has some new water slides for the kids' pool - which I remember as being as deep and scary as the Mariana Trench, but is actually hardly more than knee-deep to an adult (things look different after your kids learn to swim!) We also went to the big park by the lake, where new playground equipment has been added, wonderful wooden and rope climbing areas and obstacle courses.

There has been a LOT of fussing from the single-digit-age set about how much walking we have been doing but we figure it will build character :-) We did take a taxi home from the lakeside area, and the route took us past our old neighborhood and my breath caught, I remember being so happy there. And I now it wasn't all sunshine and roses, but this is the primary emotion I associate with these places.

I know that V. and G. don't have all the same associations, or any of my memories; they're already bored by our constant recitations "oh, I remember coming here when you were a baby" - I hope they will make great memories this year. And if they don't, that's ok too.

Friday, September 01, 2017

We Are Here

Albania - Shqiperia - when we had the chance to go pretty much anywhere in the world this year, we chose this place. I don't think I ever quite got over leaving in 2012. I have to keep reminding myself that this isn't re-living those years, this is a new chapter. But I am so happy to be back.

We are staying in a third-floor flat in an old villa, in an old neighborhood of twisting rrugicës and tiled roofs. It is a quiet neighborhood, especially since the school across the street is not yet in session and the heat of summer rises all day long. The pattern of sounds: a rooster, a dog barking, voices talking in the rhythmic, emphatic rise and fall of Albanian - Shqip, the odd motorcycle passing by. The Muslim call to prayer, but even closer to this house Catholic church bells in the morning and evening. A doppler-ized Despacito from a passing car.

Our hostess/landlady brought us a dish full of fresh figs the day we arrived, and her grown son cut us two bunches of small, sweet seedless green grapes from the vine that curls around the bannister of the outside staircase and up over our balcony above it. Huge wasps linger over the sweet juice, especially at mid-day, so Valerie makes me walk in front of her up and down to the patio below where arugula and parsley grow alongside the walk out to the street.

We hauled seven suitcases and five carry-on bags up two flights of stairs on Tuesday afternoon, and just as Terry brought up the last two, heavy drops of rain began to splatter by our feet. For the next two hours it poured rain, mixed with hail. The cool air felt so fresh after 18 hours of travel and the hot truck ride from the airport when Valerie fell asleep on my shoulder.


Yesterday was a long day, and the kids were done, and done in, by evening. We walked 1.7 km to their new school and took care of business there, then walked back to the house in the midday heat. We had ice cream and then went to see Shpresa, their former nanny, in the same small house she has lived in for thirty years. After two hours of snacking on popcorn and çibuk, playing with the dogs, and listening to me talk with Shpresa and her husband Berti in Shqip, they were exhausted. We had one more agenda item, dinner with Terry's colleagues from before (they still call themselves "the family" even though most of the original team have moved on to jobs in other countries or other NGOs) - they brought a bunch of helium balloons for the kids! Gabriel lasted longer than Val did; it was just too much for my introverted girl. We took the pizza home and ate in total silence while she read Calvin & Hobbes comics.


School starts on Monday. Terry has already been working on various projects for his various affiliations since before we left the US; I am eager, so eager for this new chapter to start in my life too. I am so thankful.

Saturday, March 18, 2017


There is a mythology of the expat aid worker, it’s sort of an inverted nationalism or perhaps a metaphor for marriage, in which you leave home and fall in love with another land. Once you’re as jaded as I am you come to realize that this is by no means the norm, but it somehow becomes a kind of holy calling, an ideal, a moral high ground – as long as you stay just short of actually “going native” this love for an adopted country is often worn as a badge of honor.

That hasn’t happened for us here in Colombia, and I’ve always felt terribly guilty about that. I don’t think this is the worst place on earth, but neither is it paradise. It’s just a place that I have failed to form any strong sense of attachment or connection to. And for this reason I have lost count of the times I've wondered whether coming here wasn't the hugest mistake. 

Last night though I was thinking about that emotional burden that I’ve placed on myself and began to consider alternative ways to look at the situation. For most of our time here I’ve believed that my lack of love for this place or its people has lowered the quality of my work, and that has been a source of shame for me. But then I began to wonder, what just is my motivation, if it isn’t love – and why am I ashamed? Maybe it’s actually more admirable, in a way, to do the work and strive to do it well even without love. They say that in marriage love is a choice you make; I think there is a parallel here because we’re talking about commitment. We made a commitment to living and working here because of something we believe in – service in the name of Christ, if you will (that’s our organization’s tagline) – and we’ve stuck it out. And I think that, overall, we’ve done a pretty good job of it.

I know I have grown tremendously, personally and professionally - and that we achieved what we came here for in the first place: living closer to family, our children learning Spanish. It hasn't been without a cost, but I'm beginning to feel that it might be possible that it has been, perhaps, worth it (have I added enough qualifiers there???)

We’ve begun the process of leaving, spending some time at the team retreat last weekend beginning to say our goodbyes. For the first time, it feels possible to actually leave well.

O Zemër

I guess it's no big secret that Terry and I really miss Albania a lot. I think I spent the first year and a half here actively grieving. I didn't realize before we left how much I had fallen in love with the place, the people. I had gotten a little bored and thought I needed a change of scenery... I wanted to be closer to family, and I wanted my kids to learn Spanish.

For me at least, my attachment to the place is inextricably connected to that phase of life with the kids. I look at pictures now and goggle at how small they were then!

But at least now I can look at those photos without my heart aching so much. I think our last visit in January last year was something I very much needed to do, in order to truly say goodbye.

I can make myself a cup of coffee in the mid-afternoon without crying. I don't feel so guilty about leaving Shpresa.

I still think it is one of the most beautiful and fascinating places I have ever been to. And that has at least a little bit to do with how we felt there among our Albanian and expat friends - wanted, appreciated, loved. 

I have found friends here; over the last year I think I finally accepted that it was ok that my closes friends are all people I work with, in most cases supervise. It doesn't seem to be an issue for the Colombian women on my team so I decided it's not an issue for me, and I've been much more content since I made that shift.

We are still uncertain about what our next steps will be. Albania could be in our future again, not only in the past. I have more thoughts about leaving that I will leave for another post - just processing in these last few months here.

Monday, December 12, 2016


Right this minute I'm in Frankfurt, on my way back to Colombia after almost 2 weeks in central Java. It has been an amazing trip, not least because of my "entourage" - three young people who accompanied me throughout. The purpose of this trip was to interview people about our youth exchange programs, I think I talked with close to 100 people, and ate mounds of amazing food. 

Soto, cooked before our eyes in a street-side cart diner

2/3 of my Entourage! in yellow, Stephannie my interpreter and handler; in white next to her, Anielle my PR rep and agent. Not pictured: Alan the driver! This is at the Soto food stand

One night we stayed with a pastor and his wife at what they call the “pond house” – our only homestay on this trip – and there were so. Many. Critters! What you might expect from a pond house… to get there we drove and drove and drove on little country lanes with rice paddies stretching out all around on all sides and views of spectacularly pointy mountains around every bend. Little villages with elaborate tiled mosques and fish markets. We got lost and had to ask directions several times. The roads were narrow and bumpy. When we found the house the pastor and wife were waiting on a covered verandah waiting with hot jasmine tea and fried tempeh snacks, wearing matching batik button-down shirts. Behind the house was a 7-hectare fish pond (yes, it was enormous). This was the only place I stayed on the trip where there was no A/C and no Internet, it was kind of refreshing… but also got really hot!

The pond behind the pond house!
 When we went to bed, I saw about a thousand mosquitos on the ceiling around the light but Stephannie said they weren’t mosquitos. I put on a ton of repellent anyway. Then an enormous flying cockroach buzzed around the room. Stephanie killed it and then found another and killed that one too. The next morning while interviewing the pastor I saw a centipede on the floor. But it was so nice sitting on the bed for the better part of the day with my puffy feet up, the floor fan slowly rotating, looking out over the pond while my clothes dried in the sun and I typed up interview notes.

The bathroom system here is different. Every bathroom has a tiled water tank in one corner, with a spigot and a plastic dipper (about 2 liters size). There may be a squat toilet, what Albanians call Turkish style, or a regular sit toilet, but there is always a hose with a spray nozzle for washing your butt. What I can’t figure is how you are supposed to dry your butt after washing? There is never any toilet paper. The proper thing is to bathe twice a day, morning and evening, using cold water dipped out of the tank. Despite the poshness of the hotels, in only two of them has there been truly hot water for showering. (You know how I love my hot showers…)

 I feel like my body odor has changed from all the spices in the food.

Fried frog legs! I also had them in the soup version which was delicious. Add enough garlic, lemongrass, and spices and anything tastes amazing!
After a dozen of these lunches I think I gained at least 10 lbs on this trip:

beautiful countryside. It also rained every day.

This Christmas tree was made entirely out of plastic water bottles and cups cut into flower shapes!
It was a really amazing opportunity to see this country and meet so many people. Sadly the only phrase in Bahasa Indonesian that I really learned was "Terima kasih," which means "thank you." But I sure got to say it a lot :-)

Thursday, October 06, 2016

and this one is not (but I'm with her)

I knit the shorter sock first, and then realized the leg should be longer. But to make it longer I'd have to undo the entire foot. So instead, I made the second sock the length I want and now I'm knitting a third sock to match the second. If I have enough yarn, I'll make a fourth sock to match the first. Otherwise... well, either I'll have a single sock for a one-footed size 9.5 (women's - size 40 in Latin America) or I'll have to rip it out.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

This post is political

I don't normally do this, but only an ogre turned to stone by the morning light could fail to feel something after Sunday's plebiscite vote to reject the peace accords. 

A few weeks ago, we went as a family to a musical event organized by our kids' school. The second part of the show was organized by the school's music teacher, Oscar, whom my kids adore. Terry and I were rapt - the collection of songs were an incisive, clever, and heartfelt commentary on Colombia, in that particular intersection of politics and culture that we both find so fascinating. It was so good. 

The video embedded below is a small sample, a song about militarization that ends with a vision of the hopes and dreams of all people for a decent life. 

On Sunday, I watched people going to Corferias (a large expo center across the street) to vote all day long, even running in at the last minute before polls closed at 4. I was shocked ten minutes later, watching a live feed of the vote counting, to see how narrowly the Yes vote was leading. Every ten minutes a new update showed the gap closing, until 5:00 in the afternoon when it became clear that the No vote had pulled ahead. Honestly, I was stunned, and my eyes were not dry.

It seems like this turn of events was completely unexpected, by everyone; even the opposition had no plan to put forward on Monday when the president asked for a meeting and sent his negotiators back to Havana.

Here is a sample of analysis that I've been reading (as of right now there is still no news on today's meetings between the president and opposition):

Ginny Bouvier, from the U.S. Institute for Peace: Why Did Colombia's Plebiscite for Peace Fail?

Something I'm still trying to get a bead on - how significant was the No vote from churches (Catholic and Protestant)? An article from BBC in Spanish: El Rol de las Iglesias Evangélicas en la Victoria del No.

From a peace church perspective, Michael Joseph gives a synopsis of the ins and outs of what happened and what lies ahead.

There are many more op-eds coming out these days, here's one from the New Yorker with a lot of "I was there" detail from the day of the signing.

This afternoon, university students are planning a silent march through the center of the city, evoking past marches in grief over the violence that has torn this country apart for so long.

(probably more like 7 million)
For now, trying to understand, and thinking about how to contribute my grain of sand within my small sphere of influence here.