Friday, October 29, 2010

Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday to my beautiful sister Anita! I hope we can Skype later today but if it doesn't work out, I'll still be thinking of you all day! Love you!!!

(Sorry this is an old picture, my photos are all disorganized...)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Do we fit in yet?

So of course as soon as I posted here that V. is taking regular, consistent naps, her naps fell apart. Ah well.

Today we were walking back from my weekly language lesson, and Valerie noticed that we had an umbrella along, so then she wanted me to open it up for her to hold.

It was a gorgeous sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, and there we trundled along, V in her stroller with a big black umbrella low over her head. I felt so completely ridiculous, I just had to embrace the funny and laugh at ourselves. It's not like we exactly blend in to begin with but this went above and beyond conspicuous!

Then as we were crossing a street near Skenderbej Square, the grandiose (currently under re-construction) main plaza in the middle of the city, a gust of wind blew the umbrella right out of Valerie's hands, and it went tumbling and twirling away down the middle of the street. I couldn't leave Valerie in the middle of the street to run after it, so I pushed her to the sidewalk as she cried and cried and reached for the lost umbrella. Cars were coming around the corner honking at the wayward device. I parked V and turned to see a very kind man rescue the umbrella and bring it back to us.

Oops, Valerie demanding mommy for sleep. More later.

Monday, October 25, 2010


What city do you live in?
I live in Domesti City. :P (ok so yeah, not that funny - still not getting a whole lot of sleep!)

Rain. I hear that the average rainfall in Tirana is twice as much in November as in October. Yikes. We're going to have to get creative here! I'm thinking it could be a good time to start potty training if we're going to be stuck at home a lot anyway... I think that overall Valerie feels pretty well settled here, although she does have her moments. The other day she was looking at a photo slideshow on our computer and all of a sudden she jumped off the chair just sobbing. I was on the couch nursing Gabriel, but when I looked up I realized she'd just seen a series of 5-6 photos of the inside of our house in Harrisonburg, that we'd taken to show potential renters. It just broke my heart that she was so sad! I held her on my lap for a few minutes and then she was fine. But I went back and hid those pictures anyway.

Today on our walk we went into a pet store where she really enjoyed seeing and hearing the birds, and looking at bunnies, mice, cats, and dogs. To American eyes it looks a little inhumane, I guess, all the puppies in cages lining the walls, but they do seem pretty pampered once they're bought. They go out on walks and run around leash-free at the park and I've seen some with little sweaters on too.

Someone Terry works with loaned us a pack-n-play and a baby bath tub which I hope will make our lives a little easier in the next few months. Valerie still hates, hates, hates taking a bath. It's been a little awkward bathing Gabriel in the sink. I hope this will work out better for both of them.

Last week I went to the local Botanical Gardens with a group of expat mothers of young children who get together there every Thursday morning. It was nice, although we did get rained on. Shpresa came along and knew one of the women, a missionary who attends the same church, so that was cool. The gardens are expansive and beautiful; the kids enjoyed climbing trees, running around, and sharing snacks.

I was encouraged this morning when Valerie played catch for a minute with another little girl at the playground! Then she was ready to go. But it was nice to see her engage with another kid (one we see pretty much every day that we go).

It's pouring rain right now so we're skipping our evening walk to meet Terry at his office. Valerie is watching Elmo so I stole a minute to write this post. I'm not sure how to wrap it up now - no bon mots - just a little slice of our life in Tirana.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Urdhero Brenda

This is the entrance to our building. There is no Americans with Disabilities Act here; you can see why it can be a bit of a production getting in and out of the building with a stroller, toddler, and infant. I have relied much on the kindness of strangers to navigate these stairs.
Behind Terry is the door to the elevator. Valerie insists on wearing this hat and sunglasses combo whenever we go out - we think she's trying to avoid the paparazzi...
Inside the elevator which Valerie, inexplicably, refers to with great enthusiasm as "Akyu."
The door to our apartment - urdhero brenda! ("come in" in Albanian)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

One Month

It's been a whole month since we said goodbye to Harrisonburg and hello to Tirana. It still feels like we just got here!

Things I miss, in no particular order:
  • knowing where to buy the things I need/want, knowing how to get there, and knowing whether the price is reasonable or not.
  • being able to understand what people are saying
  • Valerie and Gabriel's grandparents (all 4 of you!)
  • Mr. J's
  • dinners with WSK and his parents
  • my yarn
  • all my books!!!
Things I really like about Tirana:
  • seeing the sun set over the river
  • the view from our apartment (seriously, if you could see what I'm seeing right now...)
  • the kindness of strangers who help us navigate the stroller up and down stairs
  • the language - even though I don't understand it yet, I'm learning, and it's really really fun.
  • Shpresa
  • Valerie sleeping through the night and taking regular, consistent naps
  • beginning to lose the baby weight with all the walking around carrying G.
More later - I think G is waking up - got to run!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


When I lived in Cochabamba, I became aware of a class of older gentlemen whom I thought of as the "Latin gentlemen." They would pace through the plazas with their hands clasped behind their backs, wearing suits and fedoras, getting their shoes shined by scruffy urchins, invariable courteous and able to quote Aristotle at the drop of a hat.

I've noticed a similar type of gentleman here, about the same age and affect, although I wouldn't know about the courtesy or Aristotle since I can't talk with them. Last Sunday when we walked to church I saw lots of them congregated in one little plaza gathered around tables playing dominos. I wonder about all the changes they've seen in Tirana over the years, and I wonder what they think about it all - the end of communism in 1992, the financial collapse in 1997 - I doubt they're old enough to remember the German occupation, so for most of their lives Enver Hoxha would have been in power.

I also wonder what they think of us wandering around Tirana with our SUV stroller and Baby Bjorn - probably very little, come to that :-)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Four weeks since we left the US

Cribbed from an e-mail to my folks:

Terry has gone to Kosovo overnight for an event there honoring Mother Teresa. It's the anniversary of her beatification and a national holiday in Albania. Anyway, the president of Kosovo wanted to recognize World Vision (their Kosovo program is administered under WV Albania) as part of the event but the WV director wasn't able to go, so he asked Terry to go instead as an interchangeable foreigner :-) Terry even bought a suit in the local market here because he didn't bring any suits from the US... (Rosanne and Vern are now looking smug...)! The funny thing is that the president of Kosovo recently resigned so a stand-in for him is going to be presenting the award as well :-) Terry will be back tomorrow.

I asked Shpresa to come over this afternoon just so it wouldn't be such a long day without Terry home in the evening. She is such a big help. Yesterday she did a lot of cleaning so this afternoon I just asked her to help me study Albanian. Valerie even let Shpresa feed her some yoghurt so that was encouraging too. I felt kind of bad after I realized that I'd asked her to work on a holiday, but she seemed happy to come.

Tomorrow I'm supposed to meet a friend of a friend who lives in Tirana, we'll see if it all works out. Thursday I'm supposed to meet Terry's boss's wife who is Swiss, to go to the Botanical gardens. Friday I have no social plans.

Oh, and we discovered that we have earwigs in the apartment. Not a huge problem but they are really ugly! We didn't know what they were and a little internet research helped us identify them. I googled "common household pests" and looked around til I saw a picture that matched the bugs we have. So that's what an earwig is, I always wondered.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sleep Sagas

You know it wouldn't be a Phantzi blog without ongoing sleep drama.

First the good news:
  • For the most part, once over jet lag Valerie has been sleeping through the night since we got here.
  • She's been going down for naps really well for me, too (again with the occasional exception) - between 12:30 and 1, I'll tell her it's time for her nap. She'll say "A" (which is Valerese for "nap," because we traditionally sing the ABCs as a lullaby) and point to her room. We go in, I change her diaper, she gets into bed and pulls a little blankie over her lap. I give her a book, tell her "read your book and then lie down for your nap" and within half an hour (sometimes almost instantly) she's asleep.
I can't tell you how miraculous these two items feel to me.

On the flip side, unfortunately, she's regressed a bit in two areas:
  • She often fights going to bed - not the bedtime routine itself, but the end of the routine, where she's supposed to go to sleep. She usually wants one of us to stay with her until she's, if not actually asleep, then very close to it. I can understand this as she's still adjusting to this new environment, and the turning of day into night can feel like a very vulnerable time. So we're going along with it for now.
  • She's been waking up waaaay too early, at least according to us - this morning it was before 6 a.m. - not sure what's waking her up - street noise? cold? - but boy would we love to sleep in a little longer. Of course, this probably contributes directly to the ease of naptime which I'm not really willing to give up either!
Then there's sweet Gabriel.
  • Although he was the first to adjust to the time zone change, he soon after started this new thing where he gets really, really fussy just before he goes to sleep, both bedtime and naptime, but bedtime is worse.
  • The only thing that calms him is vigorous rocking in my arms, for at least 20 minutes.
  • I mean vigorous - I always have to stretch out my arms, legs, and back afterwards!
  • I keep trying to lay him down still awake so he can learn to go to sleep on his own, but even if he's calm in my arms, the second his bottom touches his bed he starts screeching instantly.
  • So I pick him up again.
  • Finally he falls asleep basically in my arms.
  • I don't feel like CIO is an option because sound carries so much in this apartment, I think it would really upset Valerie.
And then there's the night waking. Most of the time, he sleeps 4-5 hours straight at first, then wakes up to nurse. After that it's anybody's guess - every 2 hours, every hour, or more - and he seems gassy and uncomfortable. Two nights ago he went down at 9, woke up at 11, and then 1, and then every hour until the sun came up. I was beyond exhausted that day.

So I've cut out a bunch of stuff from my diet again - most sadly the Nutella and olives, but also eggs, onions, and anything gassy like broccoli or beans - I've been off dairy pretty much since he was born - and last night (24 hours after the purge) he slept 6.5 hours straight! And then 3 more! Heavenly! I also started using the gas drops (simethicone) again just for kicks.

Another change we made is where I put him down. I've been putting him to sleep in his bucket carseat in our room because it's dark and quiet at bedtime, but it seemed like he'd get restless when Terry and I came to bed an hour or two later, so then I'd move him into the stroller set up in reclining mode the living room - also so Terry wouldn't be disturbed by his noise. Last night I put Gabe to sleep directly in the stroller. Maybe that helped. It would be nice if he had his own room, but alas this is a 2-br apartment and I'm so not enthused by the idea of moving again...

And then there's naps... thankfully he goes down for naps a lot easier than for the night. They're just short. He takes a long nap in the Bjorn when we're out for our morning walk, but otherwise his naps are usually less than an hour. I suspect it's because he hasn't learned to put himself back to sleep, since he often seems to still be tired and grumpy when he wakes up. When Valerie was this age, I would nurse her down to sleep on our bed and then when she stirred and seemed to be waking up, I'd go back in and nurse her to sleep again, usually twice within a single long nap. Because of Gabriel's tendency to swallow a lot of air while nursing, I don't have this option with him (and in the long term it was not such a great practice with Valerie either). So I'm not sure what to do about lengthening his naps.

One of my biggest triage challenges - and this is where I hope Shpressa will be able to help me - is keeping Valerie happy while I'm putting Gabriel down in the other room - so this is mostly when I bring out the DVD player. Gabe is so good with other people, I'm hoping she can put him down while I stay with Valerie. Ne do te shohim (we shall see).

Shpressa = wonderful

On Monday (it already seems so long ago!) an American woman I met at church here - her husband is their youth pastor - introduced me to Shpressa, an Albanian lady who will be helping me out a couple times a week at home.

I LOVE her!

She's been working for expat families for fifteen years, and is going to help us out with just daily living stuff - some cleaning, some child care (mostly Gabriel at first, until Valerie gets used to her), some language practice. Shpressa speaks a little bit of English, but she's very good at understanding what I'm trying to say, making it into a real sentence in Shqip,* saying it slowly and clearly, and then making me repeat it back to her several times. Completely awesome. She also strikes me as a very compassionate person, and has adapted her head-nod to the American style (Albanians nod "yes" by wagging the head side to side, instead of chin up and down) which makes it easier for us foreigners to understand her.

So Monday afternoon she helped me fold laundry and wash dishes, then gave Gabriel a bath while I ran to the grocery store solo - Valerie was taking a nap this whole time so we haven't done that introduction yet. I'm so happy that she's going to be helping us!

Oh, and here's further proof that she's fabulous - her birthday is the same day as Gabriel's - 7/7! Amazing.

* Shqip = Albanian for "Albanian." The 'q' is pronounced sort of like a "shch."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Choose your own adventure

Both kids sleeping.

Nap, or blog?


Sorry faithful readers!

Friday, October 08, 2010

Futbolli Schiptar

How do you say "soccer" in Albanian?

During our morning walk today I noticed scads of sidewalk vendors hawking the Albanian flag in every size, as well as piles of red and black T-shirts and scarves. I wondered whether it was a national holiday, say Skanderbeg day or something like that?

It all became clear to me this afternoon as we walked out to the park and I saw throngs of young men in red shirts waving their arms in unison and chanting songs. It could only mean one thing: the national soccer team must be having an important match.

So, we found a corner of the park away from where the happy youths were congregating and I got out the ball I bought for Valerie this morning. She had a blast running after it, playing catch and chase and kicking it around, pausing every now and then to hop, dance, and twirl around. Every now and then, though, another group of soccer fans would walk by. At first she'd clap along with them but when they'd get close to us the volume and energy of their voices would scare her and she'd huddle up to me. Even Gabriel woke up and wore his frowny face.

Instead of waiting for Terry like we usually do (he walks home through this park so we usually meet him there and play for a bit before heading home for dinner) I put V back in her stroller and we walked over to his office. But it's 2 flights of steps up, and she wouldn't get out of her stroller, and no elevator, so we just went home.

It's funny - when T and I compared notes over dinner, it struck me how different our perceptions and experiences of the park were this afternoon. As a guy and soccer fan himself, he was curious and interested and energized by the throng of happy fans and thought it would have been fun to join them. (He also confirmed for me that there's an important match in Tirana tonight, Albania playing Bosnia-Herzegovina, which I'd also surmised by the very-outnumbered little groups of men in blue and white scarves exchanging taunts with the guys in red.) As a woman with two small children in tow, I didn't feel safe. I knew I was safe, if nothing else judging by the presence of other women with strollers in the park and even some very pregnant women, as well as the rows of old folks lining the park benches. I was also keeping a keen eye on what kinds of beverages were being consumed and saw only two beer cans, so it wasn't an inebriated crowd. But there was just something about the energy of all those male voices chanting together, flags waving, that didn't feel safe.

The city was very loud this late afternoon and evening, and it felt good to be in the quiet of our home making Gabriel laugh and watching Valerie play. If nothing else our walks do serve this purpose - they make this apartment feel more like home, a light and quiet sanctuary.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Three months old!

Gabriel is three months old today! or 13 weeks and one day. So much has happened in this short time.

He is truly a bundle of joy - full of smiles and chuckles and deliciously chubby. He's holding himself up really well and can ride front-facing in the Bjorn. I don't know how much he weighs but I've had to lengthen the strap on the Bjorn and he's outgrown some of the clothes we brought already.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Further Ponderings

Further thoughts springboarding from the previous post...

This relates also to something that was sort of niggling in the back of my mind all this past year - something about caring for other people's children.

It's a truism, but my life changed completely when we had kids. The commitments I was able to make before were no longer possible. Suddenly I noticed that all the staff at the agency where I cut my teeth on immigration issues in the US had no children. Thinking back through the past 10 years of staff turnover, I realized NONE of the staff at this agency had small children at the time that they worked there. Only one had kids at all, and they were in their teens. But we were a child-serving agency. So we spent all our time taking care of other people's children.

And I mean this in a good way. It was a good thing to be doing, working alongside people who through life circumstances and the arbitrary inequalities of our economic system were particularly vulnerable to scarcity and other related problems.

It's been a big change for me now to be spending so much time and energy taking care of my own children, to the exclusion of other people's children.

The thing is, though, that other people's children are my children, your children, our children. There is a sense in which we are responsible above all others to our own progeny, our genetic offspring, and those we've legally committed to being responsible for. But in another sense as a human race we're all responsible for all the children.

What does it mean to be responsible as an individual and as a society for the children that have been shoved to the side because of their particular heritage within the social system we have inherited?

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


There's a playground we like to go to that's not too far from where we live; maybe a 15-minute walk through the city. It's located in a somewhat posh sector, on a wide avenue lined with old trees and traffic cops. For being in such a nice location the playground itself s a bit run-down - there are only two swings, even though there are three swing sets - the other two have empty rings along the top horizontal bar. The missing swings were probably broken by kids too big for them.

The second time I took Valerie to this park it was mid-morning, and I hoped that all the big kids would be in school and we'd only have to contend with the toddler set. I hoped she'd feel more comfortable and have fun instead of being scared the whole time, like when we went with Terry on a late afternoon over the weekend and there were just throngs of people there.

Just as we arrived I saw a big girl about 13 or 14 years old go barreling down the twisty slide yelling at the top of her lungs, knocking a small child of 3 or 4 onto the ground. Another big girl, I'm guessing her age around 12, came running over yelling at her and picked up the little one. As I watched and looked around I realized they were all together, a group of 7 kids in all, three big girls on the cusp of young womanhood, three younger boys (in the 7-9 age range) and the littlest child of indeterminate gender. I can't be sure, of course, but I think they were probably Roma.

There were also several Albanian grandmothers there with little ones; a couple times they exchanged glances of resigned resentment with me as if to say "can you believe these kids?" whenever one of the big kids did something particularly rambunctious.

I suppose I got a taste for why people tend to have negative stereotypes of the Roma, although at the same time I felt bad for them - obviously they weren't in school. One girl asked me for money (I pretended not to understand, then said I didn't have any, and then she pointed at the one pocket in my pants that had coins in it); another girl tried to sit on Valerie's stroller until I told her to get off. On the one hand I resented them for infringing on a playground designed for little children; on the other hand, what else are they supposed to do with themselves if they're not in school? And while I didn't like them taking away from Valerie's enjoyment of the place, I also felt kind of guilty for all the signs of privilege and wealth that surround my little girl - from her specially designed snack cup to her new, clean clothes and shoes. I felt bad for refusing to give the girl money, and then turning right around and using that same money later on to buy Valerie a snack she didn't really need (on the other hand, if I had given the girl money, what about the other 6 kids?) Anyway, we left when the little boys in the group started throwing gravel at each other because I wasn't too confident about their aim.

They weren't there today. I wonder where they are.

Monday, October 04, 2010


We took a 3-day trip to Montenegro this past week, departing Thursday morning and returning Saturday afternoon. It was really cool to see another country nearby, to see the Mediterranean for the first time (well technically the Adriatic), to see from a distance the walled city of Budva - just a tad too far to walk there with the kids in tow, but at least we saw the skyline across the bay.

The reason for the trip was a 3-day staff retreat for WV; expats were allowed to bring their families. We stayed at a hotel most of the time where there was a nice little playground that Valerie enjoyed almost as much as she does going up and down the elevator. She enjoyed walks down to the beach as well, and eating french fries at the hotel restaurant. (Luckily they also had a lot of fruit, bread, and some vegetables she likes like broccoli and beets.)

There was not much sleep to be had as it was yet another new place to get used to, so we were pretty beat by the time we got home. But I still enjoyed seeing the lines and lines of pomegranate trees along the road, cool silver-green olive groves, old-fashioned haystacks, and modest homes with their dining room tables on the front porch shaded by grape vines. I wish I had gotten more photos but my arms were inconveniently full of chubby baby.

Travel tip: If you go to Montenegro, be sure to wear a chubby baby on your chest. You will be gushed and fawned over like you wouldn't believe.

Oh, and apparently Madonna was also there that weekend giving a concert at the most posh of the seaside hotels. So they played her music nonstop everywhere. We didn't see her though.

Language lesson

I'm not sure how much time I have - both kids are napping (yay!) for the moment - so this may be a little random.

I had my first Albanian language lesson today; it was a 45-minute walk across the city navigating across rugged sidewalks and alongside very noisy traffic with Valerie in the stroller and Gabriel in the Bjorn. I took one of Valerie's favorite DVDs along but she still wanted to be close to Mommy. Gabriel had a huge blow-out poop (all up his back) and I used my last 3 wipes cleaning it up. The language teacher is very sweet, she held G. while I tended to V. She has two children in school (9 and 11) and we met her through church. She explains things very clearly and is quite patient but I'm not sure how well I'll be able to focus with the two kids in tow. We'll see. On the way back we stopped at the Kolonat (like a McDonald's) for V's favorite - french fries dipped in ketchup - and then had some more real food when we got home. But she was quite tired by the trip.

People here are so helpful with the kids (of course, if I didn't have kids I wouldn't need so much help...!). I was on the street struggling to put V's shoes and socks on her after the lesson while G was screaming in the Bjorn and a lady stopped and helped shoe the V. while I comforted G. She turned out to be the Albanian teacher's neighbor. Every time I go in or out of the building without Terry somebody comes over to help me get the stroller up or down the stairs.

I have two words in Albanian down pat:

Me falni = Excuse me/sorry
Faleminderit = Thank you