Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Things I haven’t done in more than a year, that used to be very frequent components of my life:

  • · Driven a car
  • · Seen my mom and dad
  • · Had a full night’s sleep
  • · Seen a movie in a theater
  • · Drunk soy milk
  • · Eaten sushi
  • · Gone to a library
  • · Taught a class
  • · Graded a paper
  • · Written a paper
  • · Stepped foot on an airplane
  • · Used a clothes dryer
  • · Knitted a baby sweater or hat (although I have knit three and a half socks)
  • · Gone ice-skating (ok, I’ve never actally gone ice skating. Ever)

Monday, November 28, 2011


(Check out our family photo from last year, same place!)

Today Albania celebrated Independence from the Ottoman Empire. It's a complicated and fascinating history that I'll try to summarize for you some other time when I'm not about to fall asleep sitting, that includes such gems as Ismail Qemali coming from Italy on a ferry, landing in Vlora with a customs form that stated the purpose of his visit as "To liberate Albania."

We also took advantage of the holiday to celebrate Thanksgiving a second time - wait, did I not tell you about the first time? Oh my. I have a lot of catching up to do.

Anyway, here are some photos I took around town today.
These guys are dressed up like the Albanian founding fathers or something.
(um... I think I have some research to do...)

Friday, November 25, 2011


{This photo is from about a year ago}

Recently we went to Orange Couch Park for juice and popcorn, and Gabriel entertained himself by running back and forth across the bridge that joins the café and the park proper. As I ran after him, I remembered a little girl I saw there months ago – probably around the age then that Gabriel is now.

She was probably just about a year old; her contented delight with her own ability to walk was evident in her pleased little smile and continual motion. She had discovered the footbridge that arcs between the cafes at Compleksi Taiwan and the green spaces of Parku Rinia, and was toddling happily back and forth.

A little boy, apparently her big brother, came running to her with a soccer ball tucked under his arm and an angry expression on his face. He shouted at her and pulled at her arm, trying to get her to go back with him into the park, but she shook him off and just kept walking. Pretty soon the little boy retreated down the steps at the park end of the bridge and stood behind a holly bush crying loudly in frustration. He was so tiny himself, probably little more than three years old himself. Maybe a very small four.

I watched then as one of the waiters from the restaurant next to the bridge came striding over purposefully. He spoke sharply to the little girl, lifted her up with a hand under each armpit, and placed her next to her brother who again grabbed her arm. She, of course, headed straight back towards the bridge, where the waiter who had removed her stood with arms folded staring down at her.

Then I saw a young Roma woman (I’m guessing the mother) come running across the grass. She lifted the girl in one arm, grabbed the boy’s hand with her other one, and hurried them back to the rest of the family.

The children were so adorable, yet so small and ragamuffin; the boy’s anguish and girl’s delight so apparent; the man’s authority so absolute; I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry as the scene unfolded, but I felt like doing both. While my own children, healthy and well-dressed, were permitted access to the whole complex, these two little ones were removed.

and yet more little bits

The other day I told Valerie she was being selfish. Her response: "NOT A FISH! PANTHER!!!"

Sometimes V will look at the cover of a book she wants to read, press it with a finger and shout "click on it!" and then open it up to read it (well, technically she's not reading, but you know what I mean). Compare this too the fact that in college I was still writing term papers out by hand before typing them up onto an Apple 2g (I think that's what it was, anyway). (Credit to Aaron K for jogging this memory!)

V has three mosquito bites, one on her foot and two on her hand. This is how my kids react to mosquito bites:
(This is an old picture, for illustration purposes)

Where the heck are these mosquitos coming from??? It's almost winter!!! Anyway, she was rubbing at the bites and saying "Mama take it off!" Poor little boo.

This morning we were in the kitchen and Gabriel walked out of our room with a bundle of dirty clothes in his arms, his head thrown back to see around them. He took them all the way to the laundry room down the hall and started stuffing them into the washing machine! Then he attempted to turn the dials and bang on the door (front-loader) to make it start, like I do. Too cute for words.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


I am thankful for so many things this year.

1.- Gabriel is so healthy. He rarely gets sick, and then recovers quickly. Sometimes the rest of us will get something and it will miss him. It’s a real blessing.

2.- Valerie using the potty!!! I can’t emphasize enough how thankful I am for this – for her sudden willingness and interest, for how quickly she took to doing #2 only in the potty (I think only 2 true accidents, and only a couple times in a pull-up), for her slowly increasing independence – just enough so I don’t lose hope. There was a time when I literally could not picture her willingly using the potty on her own.

3.- Terry taking on night duty with the kids. I feel all kinds of guilty and grateful at the same time, that I can go off the clock from 8:30 until 5:00 a.m. It is such a relief.

4.- Shpresa’s help and friendship. She’s my right arm. Being able to trust her with the kids and rely on her help with household tasks makes it possible for me to do my dissertation work and feel at peace when I come home to clean floors, happy kids, and often dinner bubbling on the stove.

5.- Life in Albania. I can understand why some have called this the “armpit of Europe,” but they’re really just snobs. I enjoy living here and learning the language, culture, and history. Somehow I feel most like myself when I'm living as an expat.

6.- Awesome, loving family who are willing to make the long trek here to see us.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

funny little things

This morning Valerie was sniffling; Gabriel noticed, walked to the coffee table and picked up a tissue, then proceeded to attempt to wipe her nose. She did not appreciate his help (but I thought it was very sweet!)

Gabriel is starting to say actual words beyond "Mama" - this week he started saying "apf" for apple! And he finally started calling Terry Dada after calling him Mama for weeks (for the record, Valerie often calls me "the other Dada").

Valerie is really into Winnie the Pooh these days. Currently I'm Eeyore, Terry is Owl, Gabriel is Christopher Robin (or sometimes Roo), and she's Pooh. Shpresa is Kanga and Shpresa's son Samueli is Tigger. The room at the end of the hall where Terry gets his extra shut-eye in the mornings from 5-8 is Owl's Nest, and the middle bedroom where Gabriel now sleeps is Piglet's House. (Valerie has been sleeping in the extra bed in our room - it's a long story.)

Valerie saw an animated video clip of will-o-the-whisps and christened them "dancing lights." One day she was playing with plastic animals in a bowl of water, and I found her wiping drops of water off the bowl with her index finger and then tasting the water. She said with delight, "Panther's eating dancing lights!" (That was back when she was still Panther, not Pooh.) Now any time she sees drops of water she calls them dancing lights - even the occasional spray when using the toilet: "Mama wipe off the dancing lights!"

We're having Thanksgiving dinner with American and Albanian friends from church tomorrow night. I'm taking pumpkin muffins and rotisserie chicken. I was thinking of making chicken dumplings but I'm not sure about transporting hot liquid food to their house - might get messy.

Valerie's using more and more Shqip, like "ke ftoht" (you are cold).

I bought some finger paints for Valerie and the first afternoon she painted steadily for three and a half hours! She prefers to use a brush since she doesn't like getting her hands dirty. She loves mixing the goopy paints together, "racing" the brushes around in circles, hiding colors under other colors, dripping long thick strings of paint in swirls across other colors. She's practicing her letters with me some too. It takes focused concentration for me to supervise her, but it's fun to see her so into it.

More and more, Gabriel wants to do everything he sees Valerie doing. It's in turns funny, adorable, and heart-stoppingly scary, like when he tries to climb the furniture. These kids, they just keep GROWING!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Little bits

Christmas is coming! For some reason, whenever Gabriel sees this billboard, he mimes playing the piano and says "la la la." I have no idea why. The family in the apartment above us has a piano and we often hear the kids practicing, but he's never actually seen them. We showed him pictures of pianos and tried to make the connection but I'm not sure what he's actually imagining when he hears the music and imitates our miming.

I trimmed about an inch off the back of Valerie's hair, and it looks much better - cleaner and healthier. I'd never, ever cut that part before and it was all uneven. I like the change. She was good about letting me do it, too.

Thanksgiving is coming! This is the closest we got to a Halloween costume. Then I sat on the "hat" and it broke. I've been enjoying cooking pumpkins and squash while they last though. Amazingly, we can get cranberries here so I'm hoping to do a Thanksgiving meal with some American friends next week.

A couple days ago Valerie has a very first-Thanksgiving-ish lunch - popcorn, roasted chestnuts, and an apple. She's become a very picky eater this year, but I think it's just a stage, since she was not picky at all until recently. I try to feed her a wide variety of fruits and nuts since she refuses most vegetables now (even tomatoes, which she used to love). Apples, tangerines, figs, plums, grapes, dried blueberries, dried cranberries... hopefully she's still getting some vitamins. If I mix real vegetable broth in with her alphabet soup, she'll eat that (but not if she can visually identify an actual vegetable) and she also likes beans still (but not rice). She drinks like 4-5 or more glasses of milk every day.

Gabriel has been having terrible teething pain. All four eye teeth are coming in at the same time and taking a long time about it as well. He seems to take teething pain much harder than Valerie did. Poor little guy.

Today I ordered what I thought was a hot chocolate at the cafe where I'm working, and I got a cup of steaming hot chocolate pudding! With two sugar packets (which I did not use). I'm trying to cut back on coffee, though I don't suppose this was the most frugal substitute.

It's getting cold here.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Food for thought

I’m not really into cooking. I’m not a bad cook; I don’t hate it; it just usually feels like cooking requires more planning, attention, and focus than I have at my disposal (or want to give to it) at the moment. But all of a sudden here, I’m cooking nearly every day. What happened?

Gabriel turned one, first of all. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that for the first few months of his life, cooking a meal felt like a task of monumental proportions. Hence, lots of Red Front BBQ chicken before we moved, and lots of pizza after. Earlier this year I looked up instructions for how to make a grilled cheese sandwich, making them for the first time in my life. I tried making pancakes from memory (a miserable failure) – keeping track of more than two or three ingredients seemed like an insurmountable undertaking. However, for Gabriel’s birthday, I really really really wanted to make a carrot cake. The only cake pan we have is for making baklava, but we do have a muffin tin, so I decided to make carrot cake muffins.

They came out awesome.

It felt like a huge, time-consuming project that day, but at the same time I also found myself thinking, “this isn’t, actually, impossible.”

So I started making cornmeal muffins with Valerie on a regular basis. And then I found a recipe for grilled eggplant in a Reader’s Digest, and as I read through it I thought, “I have all the ingredients right here” – all I had to buy were eggplants (of course) and parsley, which were in season and available practically at my front door.

So I tried the recipe, and it was really good! Not only that but it looked and tasted gourmet. And I could make it while the kids played in the living room behind me.

That alone has been a huge factor – that the kids can play behind me in the living room while I chop and stir, and I don’t have to try to do everything with Gabriel in the sling and Valerie wanting constant attention.

Then when my in-laws came to visit in September, I had added incentive to plan and cook interesting meals. One thing they brought for me, at my request, was a copy of Simply In Season, a great produce-based cookbook that emphasizes eating locally-produced fresh fruits and vegetables, which, as I’ve mentioned we have in great bounty and conveniently located here.

One of my favorite recipes from that book is Groundnut Stew, which I’ve adapted made a couple times now with pumpkin. I’ve also made pumpkin muffins, pumpkin pancakes, and some different kinds of stew. Last week I made purple cabbage stir-fry. I did buy some imported black beans (which we all seem to prefer to the pinto and white beans that are more common here) and garnished them with cilantro I grew from seeds my sister bought – but at least I did throw in local onions, garlic, carrots, and red peppers.

Anyway, it feels like the same impulse to share pictures of my knitting online (hey, everybody, look what I made!) impels me now to share pictures of food online – not as cute as my kids (again, hey! Look what I made!) but fun anyway.

Monday, November 07, 2011


Gabriel is so smart. I know every parent thinks this about their child, but Shpresa agrees with me – she says he is “zgjuar,” which literally means “awake” (we would say the same thing in Andean Spanish – despierto), but implies alert intelligence as well.

He’s making sentences with his signs – where is the horse? (hands out with palms up, clicking noise with the tongue); the chicken is asleep (hand by cheek, clucking “ka ka ka”); she bit me (see previous post). Albanians are amazed when we play “si a bënë…” , asking him how does the [fill in animal] go in Shqip, and he makes the appropriate noise or hand motion. He seems to understand English and Albanian equally well; I’m not sure about the Spanish as he only hears it from me rather than conversations between multiple people, and not as often.

He can unscrew the lid off a plastic jar.

And he’s such a rascal! When I say “Gabriel, NO,” he just laughs and runs to do it again. He deliberately provokes me, doing things like shaking water out of his sippy cup while looking at me with a delighted grin and waiting for my reaction.

He tries to sweep with a broom, and can help me wipe up spills from the floor. He hands me clothespins when I’m hanging up the laundry. He will get a wet wipe from the package and wipe himself (not very accurately, though) while I’m changing his diaper. If he sees trash on the floor, he will pick it up, carry it to the kitchen, open the cabinet under the sink, and throw it in the trash can, unprompted. He wants to use the sponge when he "helps" me wash the dishes. He can sometimes feed himself with a fork, with a little help. He also likes to throw food on the floor, though.

(I think our fish are smarter than I previously realized, as well – they know when I turn the lights on in the morning that they’re going to be fed, and they follow me around, watching me through the jar, until I actually do feed them! Also, they’re terrified of an octopus toy I put in their jar once. If it’s even on the table next to their jar, they swim in circles as fast as they can, bonking their noses on the glass until I move it. Poor fishies. I just thought it would be cute. They don’t mind the starfish, but the octopus shape? Pure terror.)

I can’t believe Valerie is already three and a HALF this month, and Gabriel is sixteen months! Where does the time go?

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Truth & Reconciliation

It’s healed now, but last week Valerie bit Gabriel so hard he had a ring-shaped bruise on his arm with two little red scabs from her canines.

They had been playing happily together in his room, with V in the crib and G next to it, throwing a stuffed animal to each other, so I went to the other room to get something (probably more coffee). Shortly after that I heard escalating shouting and shrieking, so I hurried back. I rounded the corner into the room and saw Gabriel red-faced next to the suitcase we use as a toy box, tears streaming down his face – the kind of crying little kids do when their whole body is completely given over to the expression of hurt.

“WHAT HAPPENED?” I asked Valerie as I swooped him up.

“Panther bit Gabriel!”

In case I hadn’t understood, Gabriel flung out his arm, pointing an accusing finger at his sister, then mimed biting his hands, still sobbing all the while.

“NO, Panther! Do NOT bite Gabriel!” She burst into tears and ran to me; I may have hesitated a second, but then I pulled her onto my lap next to him, mostly because she seemed so remorseful. I tried to look for bite marks on his hands while I began to nurse him.

I’m going to break from the story here to comment that it’s often hard for me to know, in those moments, what to prioritize – comforting the injured child, or disciplining the transgressor? I know that discipline is most effective when immediate, but it seems particularly cruel to make the injured child wait for comfort while the other one is being put in time-out or whatever. I can’t figure out how to do both at once, because I feel like I need to give each task my whole attention. In this situation, I felt like my verbal correction had been strong enough (based on how she reacted to it) that I didn’t need to do anything else, so my next move was to try to engineer reconciliation.

“Why? Why did you bite him? That was very bad, Panther.”

“Don’t want it open! Want it CLOSED!” [indicating the toy box/suitcase]

“Well, he’s too little to understand, honey. You have to be patient with him. And NOT BITE.” I still hadn’t found any bite marks, by the way. “Where did you bite him?”

“On his elbow.”

Sure enough, his sleeve was wet, and I gasped as I pulled it up, to see the deep dents in his chubby little arm, and the two scratches where she’d actually broken the skin. She’d moved off my lap and onto a pillow on the floor, but I held up his arm to show her.

“Panther, you need to tell Gabriel you’re sorry.”

“I sowwy!”

I have to admit I was kind of stunned – I believe this is the first time, EVER, she has actually said she was sorry – and she genuinely seemed to mean it. I read somewhere that it’s better to ask a child to make reparations than to just teach them that simply saying “sorry” makes everything all better; kids are canny, and they sometimes take this to mean that they can get away with anything as long as they plan to say “sorry” afterward. So then I said, “Can you come give him a little kiss?” And she did; she who is beyond shy about overtly demonstrating affection, came and kissed her brother's hands, his soft head.

(edited to add): I also asked her a little while later, while I was still nursing him - "How do you feel about biting Gabriel?" And she said "Very sad," which was sweet.

So that was our family Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Victim and aggressor each had their moment to tell their story, there was confession, there was forgiveness. Ubuntu begins at home.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Rite of Passage

Congratulations to my Mom, US Citizen!

(photo courtesy of Cathie Phelps)

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Just Cute

Too sleepy to write anything substantive. Enjoy!