Thursday, May 31, 2012

Friday Foto Fest

In an unusual confluence of events, I had a nap this afternoon AND Shpresa took BOTH kids out in the afternoon for a walk! So I am having a rare relaxing afternoon. Here are some cute pictures to take you into the weekend.
Early-morning outing to the park

 My beloved balcony garden! 

 (This was the cat that we lost, in her hand above)

They never stop finding new places and ways to play...
Look at those toes! I want to gobble them up!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Weekends are for (mis)adventures

Rainy weekend, slightly under-the-weather kids... what better time for a Phantzi family outing, right? :-) 

We probably would not have done another trip, except that one of Terry's coworkers who lives in Librazhd lost her father last week, and so his office-mates organized a condolence visit to her family on Saturday. 

It was definitely a sad occasion but we thought it might be nice to extend the journey for ourselves, anyway, and go on to Lake Ohrid which we love so much. We rented a car and caravanned with Terry's coworkers as far as Librazhd, visited the family (I kept the kids in another room since they were pretty rambunctious after 2.5 hours in the car), then went out to lunch just our family while the rest of the group headed back to Tirana.

So then we had to decide what to do next, and we decided to go on to Pogradec, on the opposite side of the lake from Ohrid city in Macedonia. In the photo below, you can just make out Sveti Naum at the far left end of the green spit of land, just over the border in Macedonia. 
Here's a bit more of a close-up (the white rectangle at the left is the border crossing checkpoint):

 This is the hotel we stayed at; our room was on the top floor, at the far right in the photo. It was pretty nice.
And it had a playground! Valerie was not a fan of the taxidermied wolf in the outdoor cafe area that we had to walk by, but the playground itself was a hit.

On Sunday we drove across the Macedonian border to visit Sveti Naum again. 
That gray dome beyond the man on a bicycle is an old concrete bunker. There are a lot of them close to the border.
 We think the peacocks were in mating season because they were shrieking and displaying their tails quite aggressively!

 We had some of the worst hamburgers I've ever tasted just before heading out to drive back to Tirana. That didn't stop Terry from eating two!

Despite the bad food and rainy weather, the kids did really well on the drive there and back. Gabriel was definitely not feeling really great, but he took it all in stride. It was nice to get home and back into our routine. Oh! And then, we did this!

She loves it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Sunday afternoon at the playground nearby, we lost Valerie's little cat toy that she takes everywhere with her. Somewhere in these bushes... we tore apart the place trying to find it. Even drained the fountain (you can see the rim of it over the irises). No luck.
She's been taking it pretty well, actually, and we found a replacement on Amazon for about $5 that we'll pick up next time we're in the US. Meanwhile, she's adopted a replacement - a bunny the same size and color.
I think there's potential here for her to learn emotional resilience and responsibility for her things. I'm not sure if I'm the best person to teach her, since I think I took it harder than she did since I felt responsible.


On Monday, 13 people lost their lives in a bus accident in southern Albania. It was almost exactly the same kind of accident that resulted in the loss of my friend and fellow volunteer's life in Bolivia almost exactly 14 years prior.

It's hard to imagine losing either of my children. We try so hard to protect them - probably too hard, in some ways - but there is no way in this life, on this earth, for ourselves or our possessions to be perfectly safe at all times. There just isn't. In that sense, I'm glad it was "only" a toy that was lost.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Join something

What a long, strange week it’s been.

Last Sunday, tired and cranky after the birthday party, we went to church and saw a Roma lady who has been coming off and on since winter with her two little children. I can’t always understand her very well, but as we talked I got that her home has been destroyed by the police, and she’s been sleeping on the street with her kids.

I didn’t know what to say or do, but I made sure that a couple other people there knew the situation, and I saw several people (who actually speak fluent Albanian, and a few who actually are Albanian) talking with her and working to connect her with some emergency services.

As we walked home, I took a long look towards the lake – we pass by that way – and saw that the tiny Roma village that has been evolving just below the dam is gone. Completely. I mean, there’s not a single rope or sheet of plastic left.

Last weekend we’d noticed a police sweep through the big park by the lake, ejecting all informal/unlicensed vendors – even breaking apart cement structures with crowbars – and then when I’d noticed the silence of the streets where Roma children often hang out playing and begging, I’d thought about this woman who comes to our church and wondered if they were ok.

We knew she lived there, by the dam, because we’d walked past one day, coming back from the amusement park, and she’d run out from under the old cypress trees that sheltered their makeshift dwellings to say hello. We stopped to chat, and very quickly she and we were surrounded by a small crowd of women and children staring curiously. One woman, off to the side, held out her hand asking for money and was instantly shushed by all the others. A little girl who had gathered up discarded mimosa blooms was sitting on a cement block trying to sell the withering flowers. It didn’t take long to get to the end of our language ability and then we went on our way.

Since then we’ve occasionally run into women who recognize us from that single encounter and enthusiastically say “hi” (and sometimes ask for money).

This little Roma community was never anything but precarious. It was situated on a large vacant space below the dam (so it has to be really damp most of the time, possibly even swampy). On one side is a sports complex, on the other a car wash, and below it is a dump filled with rubble and trash. The homes were built of discarded pieces of plywood, cardboard, plastic, tied together with rope. But laundry was hung to dry on lines strung everywhere, and I’d noticed one house had a row of potted plants along one side. And they had those lovely old cypress trees (that are still there). One day when we went past I noticed three young men hanging out with a boom box, smoking and dancing a little. It may have been a makeshift squatter camp on a dump site, but it was their home.

It reminded me  a lot of the townships in South Africa, although obviously not anything near as big. But the dynamics are also similar. People pushed to the margins of society by those who have control of the land and the resources, making do as best they can with what they have, constantly being beaten down because of prejudice.

I feel helpless and stupid in the face of this, of things like this. The root causes of these problems are so deep, and my understanding such a small sliver. I feel frustrated by my lack of knowledge of the language and culture. I also know the complications involved in trying to “help” people in these kinds of situations.

On one level, it would look so simple – we have extra room, why couldn’t we invite the woman and her children to live with us until she finds her feet? But the thing is… it’s not just her, is it? It’s also her husband and two teenaged children. It’s her whole extended family and the literal and metaphorical baggage that they’d bring. It’s also the centuries of prejudice and discrimination that don’t allow her people to find employment in the regulated, formal sector. It’s also that dark side of charity, the power you gain over someone when you give them a gift they cannot repay, their indebtedness to you, and how that warps relationships.

It also frightened me how quickly I stopped thinking about this woman and her children. I rained for four days this week, and I did think about her during pauses in my day, wondering where she was sheltering from the rain, wondering where the others from her little community have gone. But by Tuesday I’d lost the feeling of dreadful sadness and worry I’d felt on Sunday, the outrage I’d felt when I saw how cleanly swept was the vacant area where they had been living.

Shpresa asked me, when I told her the story, “but where did they come from? Where were they before they made their houses there?” I don’t know. There’s so much I don’t know.

We’re here such a short time, overall. I don’t know what I can do to try to bring good into this situation. But, having met this lady and her children, having sat with them in church, having acknowledged simply through saying good morning our common humanity, I feel like a turd for doing nothing.  

Terry gives me the advice I always give students going through this range of emotions - "join something." I guess I have to figure out what.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Birthday party pictures

first flowers from a boy!

I did not make this cake. 
I did make the little bears out of modeling clay.
She got to eat all the strawberries from the top of the cake.

The lighting in my living room is awful!!!
But the company was great!
And the kids all had a blast. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pooh is Four!

Photo highlights from the last 12 months...

Happiest of birthdays to my smart, fun, athletic, strong, beautiful daughter! I will never forget the day you were born into our arms. We are so proud of you. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Weekend aftermath

We had a crazy weekend. Saturday we had a birthday party for Valerie (photos forthcoming), with a few little friends from church over. She and Gabriel had SO. MUCH. FUN. We played Pin the Tail on the Donkey, and ate way too much (dried fruit mix, popcorn, carrot sticks, pizza, cake, ice cream, juice boxes). The game was pretty funny because every single kid nailed it - I think they were peeking! Then Valerie went back and moved the tails so they were all over the place and it looked more like the game she'd seen on a video somewhere. 

Sunday we paid the proverbial piper for the dance. Everybody was SO GRUMPY! Tired, and hung over from the excess of sugar. But we went to church, and then after naps in the afternoon we took the kids to "orange couch park" and had supper at a restaurant there, then let the kids out to run around on the grass. Valerie played "soccer" with a little boy her size and Gabriel practiced jumping off the curb onto the sidewalk. It was really nice. 

I also got this done over the weekend:

Now Valerie is asking me to cut her hair "short, like Gabriel's"! I went so far as to get out the scissors and then I just couldn't do it. I was about to cry! (So yes, I'm making it all about ME... oops.) If she keeps asking though I guess I'll do it. It's starting to get summery-hot out.

Today is a rainy Monday though so it feels nice to get a cool breeze. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

One of the guys who went on our historic hike 2 weeks ago made this little video about it. You can see glimpses of Terry and I carrying the kids at 0:37, and starting at 1:04 (I think you can see V saying she needs to pee). We never made it to the waterfall ourselves but you can also see what we missed :-)

Oh, and for the record, we didn't actually walk across that insane little gray ridge (1:10), we went around it.

Monday, May 07, 2012


We've been taking advantage of the gorgeous weather lately to go out with the kids to cafes, parks, the lake, by the river.

Saturday the lake was still and clear, though covered with fluff from what I believe are some species of cottonwood tree. 

But it was weird - we noticed as we went into the park that the usual popcorn and soap bubble vendors weren't around. Then we saw several police clustered around a fast-food kiosk, supervising its dismantling. On our way out of the park near noon, we saw a camera crew racing in.

It looks like it might be a city-wide sweep of informal or unlicensed vendors. It made me kind of sad, actually, since it's probably more politically motivated than anything else, and the people hurt the most will be those who lack the start-up capital to open a formal business. People on the margins trying to make a living.

Later, when we walked down by the river, I realized that the streets were strangely empty of another informal sector - the women and children who are usually at this intersection begging. It's annoying to be asked for money from an insistent child who follows you and tugs at your clothes, but at the same time it was sobering to see them all gone. I wonder if it's part of a city-wide crackdown of some kind? Even the people who come around to scavenge scrap metal and glass from the city dumpsters were absent.

But it wasn't a holiday for pickpockets. As we were leaving this park to head home, waiting for the light to change at the intersection, I was telling Terry something when I felt my shoulder-bag move against my hip. My lizard-brain instantly keyed into the man standing too close behind me, and my heart began pounding with adrenaline as I turned around and checked my bag. It was unzipped, but nothing was missing (camera, cell phone, about $70 in cash). The man moved away nonchalantly but I noticed a sweatshirt draped over his arm and hand. He didn't meet my eyes. I turned to Terry and said "if that guy's a pickpocket he's a really bad one." When I turned around again he was gone.

In almost two years that's been my first encounter with a pickpocket (that I know of) - other than losing my wallet on the bus to Vlora, but I'm pretty sure that was my fault and its ultimate disappearance was a "finders keepers" kind of thing. I've heard there's been a rise in petty crime since the economy in Greece has been tanking, and Albanians living and working there have been returning home, rising the tide of unemployment here. Everything reverberates; there are always ripple effects. The water looks still, but it is not frozen.

Friday, May 04, 2012

More reading!

I made a master list of words Valerie can sight-read, then drew from that list to write her a little story. It worked great, she read the whole thing by herself! She only needed help with a few words (the verbs, mainly). I've got to do more of these, hopefully the next one will make more sense! (And I can e-mail anyone the list who wants to take a stab at writing her a story - she can also sound out short words, such as consonant-vowel-consonant words - just avoid weird words that have a lot of silent letters like "could," "thought," etc.)