Tuesday, May 31, 2005

There and back again - part 1

We had an amazing weekend in Greece. M was able to leave around noon so we had Gushta, our regular taxi driver, drive us to the Macedonian border where we were picking up the rental car. It was wonderful to get out in the countryside and leave the dust and pollution of Pristina behind. The rental car people met us at the border and took us into Skopje to complete the paperwork. M, D and I were traveling with our friend Elvira, whose husband John is a colleague of M's here, and their daughter Emma. John was meeting us in Skopje, but got a bit delayed, so we ended up having a nice lunch at the local McDonald's while we waited. Double cheeseburgers, fries and happy meals all around!

We left Elvira and Emma at a local hotel to wait for John, then headed for Greece. The Macedonian countryside has something for everyone - mountains, rivers, farmland, gorges, tunnels and country villages. The mountains are much higher than anything we have on the East Coast of the US -- probably comparable to the Rockies, actually. Some of the peaks had snow on them. There were masses of bright red poppies all along the roadside for color, and every so often there was a picturesque little village, complete with donkeys, sheep herds and a horse-drawn cart or two.

We got a little lost when we got near Thessaloniki, mainly because roads in this part of the world don't necessarily go by numbers, you mostly follow place names and of course, we missed the English sign for T'niki and we don't read Greek. So we took a stab in the wrong direction. Luckily, I finally got to put my days as a sorority girl to good use, when my knowledge of the Greek alphabet helped us to identify that we were headed toward Athens. We turned around at a toll booth and headed back - right into a torrential downpour. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, is more stressful on a car full of weary travelers than driving in heavy rain, in an unfamiliar city/country, trying to read signs in not just another language but another alphabet, following sketchy verbal instructions to "head toward the airport, you can't miss it" (which usually means you will), while in the back seat your 3-year-old chants over and over "want to swim in the pool." But after finally finding the airport and a nice policeman who spoke English, we eventually found the Hyatt. Thank goodness it was worth the journey!

Saturday we went into Thessaloniki with John, Elvira and Emma. We split up for the day as they wanted to shop and we wanted to sightsee. The city is an ancient Byzatine port city, but cleverly combines the old with the new. Saturday is a major shopping day and the stores are very cosmopolitan and hip, as are a lot of the people who live there. We saw a couple of the attractions, had some coffees at a waterfront cafe, and did a lot of walking around. There are ruins, excavations and ancient churches everywhere. Unfortunately, most of them are closed sites and a lot of them are informal garbage dumps. Strange to see a stone wall a couple of thousand years old next to a dumpster of garbage, discarded boxes and maybe an old appliance or two.

Another incredible attraction was the local farmer's market, which was about three square city blocks of people selling every kind of foodstuff you could imagine. Piles of fruits and vegetables, stands with sacks and sacks of nuts, herbs, spices, candies, pastries, cases of baklava, meat pies, spinach pies, cheeses, and of course, meat. Fresh fish laid out on huge trestle tables, sides of beef ready for carving, pork, chicken... food everywhere. Food heaven. I wish we had something even remotely comparable in St. Pete. At the end of the day we met up with our friends for dinner at a local restaurant. The food was to die for - grilled haloumi cheese, fried red peppers stuffed with feta, garlick-y potato slices grilled and topped with tzatziki, meat pie, lamb meatballs on pitas... it was probably one of the best meals I've ever had. D, unfortunately, slept through the whole thing. But she'd had a slice of Greek pizza and a bunch of pastries earlier. I'd drive down again tomorrow for the pastries - and the market.

Next post - Halkidiki here we come!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Greek getaway

We're heading out of here tomorrow morning for Greece. Our itinerary? First we take a taxi to the Macedonian border where the rental car company will meet us. Then it's a 3.5 - 4 hour trip to Thessaloniki. Reverse and repeat on Monday. We'll be staying at the Hyatt there - very American, but they could guarantee us a king-size bed plus a rollaway for D. Breakfast is included with the room and since every single person I've met here has mentioned how good the breakfast is, we just couldn't pass it up.

M is meeting with a VIP supreme court judge tonight, so our plans to go out to dinner are off. Ordinarily I'd just call Domino's... Looks like it's corn flakes and pudding for dinner again! We tried to heat up a roasted chicken last night, but since the oven's temperature gauge is in Celsius and there are no words for "bake" "broil" "roast", just very vague drawings of a box with different sides highlighted, the chicken was still stone cold after 45 minutes at 225 Celsius. Yuck. No idea what I did wrong. Perhaps the dial was only set to "oven light?"

It was sunny again today, but very cool and super windy. Good day for laundry, so I got caught up on that.

All for now. I won't have a chance to post over the weekend, so to all our family and friends back home, have a happy and safe Memorial Day weekend. Save some BBQ for me.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Cold feet, warm greetings

Weather turned wintry again today. I suppose if I understood Albanian I could have watched the local news and seen the story about the un-seasonal icy rain and wind blowing into Pristina, but as it is, D and I were caught unawares. So much for the t-shirts and shorts we were sporting yesterday! Forget the ice creams we enjoyed on the rooftop patio! Today we're back in our fleeces.

We were kept warm by the friendly and down-to-earth people we met at our first Pristina playgroup today. They group is comprised of international families with children who have been here anywhere from a couple weeks to 6 years. They are very welcoming, used to new faces, and it was nice to watch D play with new friends -- she fit right in. I am also amazed at how child-bearing-and-rearing results in such common experiences. Luxembourg to Lithuania to Pristina to St. Pete, it's all the same. Kids! The biggest difference I could tell were that we're not being posted anywhere after this assignment. Many of the international workers here are part of a vast, nomadic employee population, working for NGOs, the EU, the UN and the many private relief agencies. They travel from place to place, for years and years, always with an eye to the future and where they might be placed next.

Today there have been many more people than usual visiting the war memorials in the field behind the house. We might be coming up on an anniversary of a battle. I'll have to ask our landlady.

Looks like plans are coming together for our first trip to Thessaloniki, Greece this weekend. It's a bit of a pain getting out of Kosovo. There are no regularly scheduled flights to anywhere but Vienna and the UK. There are no trains. Cars with Kosovo plates are (at this time) not allowed to cross the borders of many of the countries around here, and most Kosovars aren't allowed to leave Kosovo at all. So the best option is to take a country bus (unreliable and slow) or a taxi to the border of Macedonia, and the rental agencies from Skopje will come out to meet you there. Much different than just jumping in your car, gassing up and taking off. I'm learning how much I've taken for granted in my life.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Quick update

Today I activated the comments feature on the blog, so feel free to comment, respond, disagree, etc.

Back to reality

Over our first weekend here, it was easy to forget that M is actually here to work. We're the ones on vacation (although Moms are never truly on vacation, are they?). His project is really hitting and there is a big meeting early next week so that means longer hours and a bit more stress for him. No matter, we're used to that! Dinner can keep in the oven just as easily here as in Florida.

Summer blew in suddenly yesterday and today is warmer and very windy. It really kicks up the infamous dust and pollution problem that everyone complains of. It's a shame; we can't open the windows to let in the fresh air or everything is quickly coated in a layer of grit. The dust here is very clay-y, red and sticks to everything. We walked down to where M works today to meet him for lunch and the road dust was terrible. D was miserable, had dirt in her hair and eyes, so we got a cab the rest of the way to the restaurant. It is much better up on our little hill, cooler and much less dirt, for which I'm thankful. Still, it's strange. There is a funny burning smell in the air today, which I'm told is the coal-powered electric plant (still unfiltered in 2005!) blowing our way. I think we'll stay inside until after dinner.

For dinner tonight, we are walking down to one of the many corner markets to try out the rotisserie chicken. It's the Kosovar version of a "to go" meal. You'll see these huge cases of grilling chickens rotating everywhere. Not sure where the chickens come from, but I'm pretending they're straight off the farms somewhere outside of town. They must get delivered and then stuck right on the rotisseries, because I've yet to see fresh chicken in the stores. I can see why obesity just isn't a problem here. You walk everywhere, the choking dust kills your appetite and there is very little processed food. We have found a few treats - English and German chocolates, these rice cereal "cookies" (don't get the idea they're like Oreos -- more like a lightly sweetened Wheat Thin) and Sesam Fischi - poppyseed and sesame goldfish crackers. D continues to be a trooper though. Today at lunch she happily chowed on grilled bread covered with caramlized onions and bits of spinach (she passed on the eggplant dip) washed down with a glass of peach juice. Not her typical fare!

She's napping now, which is good, because she'll be able to stay up a bit later to see M and maybe we'll play in the field behind the house after dinner. It's light until about 9 here, which is great. Last night there were probably 200 people out there - families walking to and fro, kids playing chase, teenagers hanging out, at least 3 soccer games and, of course, the grazing cows.

I just heard some thunder, so we may be in for some afternoon rain. Just like summer in Florida! At least it will keep the dust down.

Monday, May 23, 2005

A Monday in Kosovo

Happy Monday! It's our first weekday here and it's very quiet. The kids are in school, so there's no one playing in the field behind our apartment, unlike on the weekend when by 9 it was packed with people playing soccer, stickball, walking dogs and grazing their cows.

We did laundry last night. We have a new washer in the apartment, but no dryer so all the laundry is drying on the balcony this morning. Any guesses on how long it takes jeans to dry in the sun? I have to watch and only do one load every day otherwise we won't have enough room to dry everything.

Someone told me there is a playgroup that meets today, but I'm not sure where -- something about the Luxembourg mission compound. We'll see. There's a lot of hurry up and wait here, so I'm trying to be patient and just go with the flow.

Yesterday it was very pretty - a cool, sunny spring day and we went hiking with some of M's colleagues in a local park. It was pretty mountainous and we're fairly high up in the Balkans anyway so I was huffing and puffing like a steam engine from the get go. Then D got tired so we had to carry her - actually mostly me since every time M picked her up she started crying and screaming "Mommy, hold me!" An older couple hiking nearby gave her a licorice candy to distract her. They love, love, love kids here. Everyone pinches cheeks, waves hello, makes a fuss over little kids and other kids will just run up and kiss her on the cheek or try to touch her. D --ever cautious of stranger danger -- freaks out and runs away.

The wife of one of M's co-workers took me shopping last night for more staples. Flour, sugar, salt and pepper, cinnamon, raisins. Tuna in water (the can label showed some kind of salad so there was no way to tell it was tuna!) and cheese. Honey-nut Cheerios too! She also knows a decent fresh fish shop and says the sea bass and salmon are both good. We may try that this week, just to get some protein. There is an egg shop at the end of our street (as mentioned in a previous post) and I think the eggs are fresh. They look freshly laid anyway. It's very strange as I've always thought eggs needed to be refrigerated, but you never see them cool here. They're just laid out in these cardboard cartons all over the place.

People are very friendly and helpful. The locals are used to foreigners because of the UN and all the international aid people here, and most everyone speaks a few words of English. I guess we'd stick out as foreign anyway, even if I weren't the only person traipsing around in capris.

We live near a local mosque and hear the call to prayer throughout the day. The first one is at dawn - about 4:30 a.m. here. At 10:00 every night they have the final call. It's very beautiful, peaceful, not that we understand what's being said. Completely different than anything I could have imagined.

We'll try to get some pictures up later this week.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

So here we are

We arrived safe and sound late Friday evening. Just as planned and hoped for. I couldn't have asked for a better trip - no delays, no lost luggage and D was excellent except for around midnight on Thursday when she had a nightmare and woke up rows 29 - 32 in coach with her crying and screaming. I only got one "shush" though, and the crew was getting ready to wake us up for breakfast anyway. So all's well that ends well, although I could go for the rest of my life without ever passing through Gatwick again. Smoky, smoky and omigosh are the bathroom stalls SMALL. Barely made for one person, let alone someone with 3 carryon bags, a stroller and a small child. We actually got stuck because I couldn't open the door wide enough to get the stroller out. I was trapped on the toilet side and D was at the door. I had to shove her out into the bathroom, toss the bags out to her (she valiantly tried to pull them aside), and then partially close the stroller before I tumbled out. I think airplane bathrooms are bigger.

Kosovo is totally unlike anyplace else I've ever been, yet elements of it remind me a lot of Jamaica, of all places. Maybe it is the concrete and stucco homes, or the piles of debris by the roads, the cows grazing in the fields. I cooked my first dinner last night: penne and tomato sauce. Then celebrated by waking up this morning with a raging migraine. Really very sick in every way possible. I slept it off while M took care of D. But it was a near thing and if I have any more mornings like that I'll be heading for home much sooner than expected. But so far that is the only sign either D or I have had of jet lag. D is already on her regular sleep schedule!

The food thing is going to be hard to figure out. No frozen foods, no mac n' cheese, no fast foods at all. We went to a local restaurant for lunch today. Had some types of schnitzel, mine was chicken and M's was a part of a cow. No English translation for the part but it was tasty anyhow. D got the "Florida Salad" - chicken nuggets with salad and fruit. We also got a delicious soup (looked and tasted like pea puree with pasta or rice in it), a very fresh, huge side salad and a little bowl of fruit with caramel and whipped cream all for free with our meal. The whole meal was only 12 euros. The food here is amazingly inexpensive. We did some basic grocery shopping and a loaf of fresh-baked bread is only 25 cents and eggs are 75 cents a dozen. Even the canned goods are just a few cents, however I couldn't always tell what was inside based on the pictures. Dairy is the same way - M had bought some yogurt and D had one for breakfast, but neither of them could decide on the flavor based on the pictures. D settled on "apple," eventually. But the fruits and veggies are cheap, fresh and delicious, so I think we'll at least be eating healthy. Dinner tonight was "Kosovo toast" - french toast without sugar, cinammon and syrup, but with fresh cherries and strawberries instead.

It's all good, just being together again.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Packin' it in

We are officially packed. Our checked luggage will consist of: one wheelie suitcase containing, for the adult: two pairs of pants, two skirts, assorted matching tops, a hairdryer and three pairs of adult shoes and for the child: 11 separate changes of clothes, three pairs of pjs, a fleece jacket and four pairs of shoes; and a large Barney-purple duffel bag with an inflatable air mattress (have I mentioned there's only one bedroom in our Kosovo apartment?), boxes of fruit snacks, assorted eye and hair care products and fresh towels. Not bad, I think, for two months in a foreign land with all kinds of activities - and weather conditions - awaiting us. Then I see the pile that I'm attempting to carry on: purse, overnight bag, diaper bag, D's backpack, umbrella stroller. I'm carrying a small electronics department in the overnight bag: iPod, PVD (for D), two cases of DVDs, adapters, batteries, headphones, and my new toy, Altec Lansing's inMotion Portable Speakers for the iPod. These babies ROCK. About the size and weight of a paperback, they pump out great sound, run on AC or DC, and trickle charge the 'Pod. Love it. I almost hope they make me turn them on during the security check - rest assured I'll have my Wang Chung ready to play!

Not that I wish to run afoul of the good folk at the TSA. Especially after my minor brush with the law at Target the other day. I was buying a couple types of medicine containing pseudophedrine, ignorant of a recently passed law limiting such purchases to two per customer per transaction. Seems some people cook the medicine with battery acid to create a drug. Now, I don't have a clue what drug this would create. But it probably didn't help my case that I was also buying several packs of AA batteries in preparation for our trip. I actually had to explain to a manager why I had so much medicine (D has a cold and we're traveling and some friends in Kosovo asked me to bring over some allergy medicine... really!) and the batteries were extras for the aforementioned electronic gear. Too bad I didn't have my overnight bag with me to actually show him the goods. Anyway, apparently they trusted me not to go home and mix my PediaCare with my double-As, because they let me purchase the surplus bottles in a separate cash transaction. Everything takes two tries these days.

So now I just have minor cleaning up to do around the house. Take out the trash. Panic at the last minute and stuff as many diapers as I can into the outer pockets of the suitcase. And of course watch Lost at 8:00. If you're thinking of calling, kindly wait until 9.

All for now!

Monday, May 16, 2005

Play-doh & gadgets

Time is just slip-sliding away. Exhausted and shopped-out, with D just a wee bit sniffly, we decided to take Sunday off and not go anywhere. No shopping, no errands, no activities. It was very relaxing, hibernating in the a/c. We played animal hospital, puppet show, got out the play-doh, and read almost every book in D's library. Also invented a new game called Mail Carrier. A nice way to recycle two common household nuisances: junk mail and empty shoeboxes. Hmm, why do I have more shoeboxes than shoes?

The following contains a brief, shameless commercial plug. M called in the afternoon using Skype, a really cool Internet telephony service. If you live a long-distance call away from loved ones, or just love technology, this is great stuff. Secure and totally free, over your regular Internet connection. And unlike a lot of other P2P applications, works on Macs! Yay! Try it today! Okay, back to the call... M finally had a chance to get out and about visiting some of the parks. I get the impression they were very nice, unlike most of Pristina which is de-forested, rubbly, dusty and under construction. Ah, the trials of rebuilding after a war. Since I consider it a major inconvenience when a lane on the interstate is blocked due to construction, I'm not sure how I'll react to a whole city undergoing the same.

Since Kosovo isn't an area of the world typically covered on the Weather Channel, here's a site that shows the local 5-day forecast, for anyone interested.

Today is our last playgroup until July. We're going to a local park to play and have a picnic. I'm taking pictures of D's little friends for an album I'm taking with us. Then later, we're going to buy some accessories for my iPod. I know I said no more shopping, but M said to get a set of portable speakers since we have no radio there and the Albanian version of MTV features hot tunes like the Macarena. Plus then we'll be fully mobilized for any occasion that may call for an iPod stocked with nostalgia-inducing 80s tunes (Madness, anyone?) -- wait a minute, maybe that Albanian MTV is right up my alley after all.

My packing list is now dominated by play-doh and electronic gadgets. Watch, I'll forget to pack my jeans.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Sleepless in St. Pete

Thwarted in my attempt to get more sleep. D woke up crying at 11:30 pm and I spent the next two hours trying to calm her down. It just wears me out. The crying started out as the "night terror" variety, then quickly progressed to demands for water, milk, mommy. It reminded me a bit of how she was when M first left for Kosovo, so I'm attributing it to the fact that M's parents picked up the Dog last night. She is going to live with them while we're away - she'll be a Mountain Dog! They love her and vice versa (can't say as much for their cats) so she'll be well taken care of, but D kept asking where she was and I guess she decided that the middle of the night is a good a time as any to get upset about it.

Anyhow, at 1:00 am I caved in and brought her into my bed -- after all one half is empty. If only she understood about halves. Instead she spent the next 30 minutes sobbing on and off, then about 45 minutes thrashing about trying to get comfortable. She ended up curled against my back in a sweaty heap, hair tangled everywhere, with her feet positioned in kick mode. It was a mighty uncomfortable night, and just one of many reasons the family bed doesn't appeal to us.

M called yesterday. He was just off work and passed a phone box and decided to call. All is well in Kosovo. He's discovered an egg shop near our apartment - stacks and stacks of eggs of all sorts, sizes and colors. The owner speaks English so that was a nice bonus and at least we'll know if we're getting chicken eggs or...not chicken. M's also found a grocery store that stocks a lot of Turkish products and - good news - pasta. So D won't starve after all. It sounds like the basics (milk, bread, veggies and fruit) are available, but M thinks we'll be eating out a lot anyway. My entries may end up sounding like a mini-restaurant review for Kosovo, although nothing like our friends the Pauleys who are on their way to producing a comprehensive guide to eating in Louisville. (Hi Tony & Kim!)

I imagine this week will go pretty quickly and next Saturday's post will be from Pristina, Kosovo.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

One week to go...

It's official! We're off to Kosovo in just one short week. The planning process for the trip is going well, but I'm looking forward to actually getting there. M. & I have been apart far too long. As far as packing, I swing from wanting to bring everything with us, from sippy cups to fruit snacks, to deciding we will rough it. M. has met some of the other families living there and the community sounds very close-knit and inclined to helping each other out.

Since M. is already there working he has had time to meet people, get our apartment set up and get the lay of the land. Today he discovered a real grocery store that he says is comparable Giant Eagle (big shout out to Pittsburgh!) That went a long way to relieving my fears that we would have trouble finding fresh food. Actually, I shouldn't worry at all as M. says that the food, particularly the salads, are very fresh and there's an abundance of feta on everything. Yummy!

I've spent a lot of time daydreaming about all the sidetrips we will (hopefully) get to take. Greece for sure. Hopefully Hungary, Prague and parts of Poland too. Very exciting. I hope D. remembers some of the fun and exciting things we will experience.

All will be fine if I can just stop shopping. I keep thinking of one more thing that we might need, 75 lb. weight limit per bag be damned! I have two rules for the remaining week: 1) get to bed by 11:00 pm, even if there's a episode of Law & Order: SVU on that I haven't seen and 2) stop browsing the Web for crazy, esoteric travel gadgets and gear.