I’ve completed my second day with the U.N. Development Program or, as they spell it, Programme. I’m working on two projects: the U.N. Global Compact, which is an effort to get businesses to promote positive change by adhering to 10 principles encompassing labor standards, human rights, environmental protection, and anti-corruption; and the Growing Sustainable Businesses Initiative, which seeks to promote small- and medium-sized enterprise growth as a tool for achieving pro-poor development and achieve the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals. So far, I’ve traveled to Fier for a quality management seminar; had two long lunches; attended a leisurely meeting; read some background material; and written a memo. Eventually, I hope to help develop strategies that will improve market participation opportunities for small rural agricultural producers and manufacturers, but this is down the road.

Happy Birthday, Kosova

So it turns out that Kosova and I now share the same birthday – February 17. Abby and I pondered this during the weekend, when we went with our Albanian doctor friends (Dritan C. and Dritan M.) and their wives (Albana and Elsa) to Llogara and Himara in the south of the country.

We set out in the afternoon to battle the traffic along the Durrës highway to reach the coast and then turn southward. We made it the Adriatic in a reasonable amount of time, but the trip southward was, to be honest, disgusting. After we left Durrës and headed toward Fier, we began to smell the smoke of burning garbage. For miles, we drove through a dark landscape dotted with low flames and plumes of smoke. For us, this was just a temporarily unhealthy; but for the people in the area, there was no escaping the clouds of incinerated trash particulate getting into their houses, their clothes, and their lungs. Ideas about environmental health are fairly non-existent in Albania.1

Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, the ride was pretty uneventful, although the roads were pretty choppy at points. Eventually, we began climbing into the mountains of Llogara, switching back and forth up the slope2 until we reached our hotel, where we ate a huge meal and went to bed.

In the morning we enjoyed breakfast and fed the deer that live on the premises. Then it was out to explore. We drove to the top of the mountain and enjoyed the view; then wound our way down the mountain and through some picturesque, isolated villages before visiting the sadly deserted beach village of Dhermi3 and the seaside town of Himara. The pictures describe what we saw somewhat; it’s hard to put into words how impossibly blue the water is, how imposing and dramatic the mountains, and how beautiful and forlorn the mountain villages are. Actually, now that I read this, I suppose it isn’t that hard after all. We also ate really well again.

View of the mountains and the ocean outside Himara; the village of Vuno; the beach near Dhermi.

The water really is that blue; Paul with the Dritans and their wives; one of the plates of fish at lunch; sunset on the way home.

And as far as Kosova goes, there are fireworks going off in Skenderbeg Square, and people have been flying Albanian flags all day. I’m in favor of independence. (In fact, we stopped on the way home in Vlorë to visit the Museum of Independence, since Vlorë was where Albania’s leaders announced their independence from the Ottomans in 1912. Funny thing – immediately after they did so, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece invaded and began to carve up the country. The wars continued until 1913, when the Congress of London settled the boundaries based on reports they received from the field, i.e., without ever visiting the area to judge the situation for themselves, and they left about half of the area’s Albanian-speaking population outside Albania’s borders. The results of that decision are playing themselves out in Kosova as we speak.) I’ve been listening to the news and I’ve heard the Serbian position that the proclamation is illegal, that Kosova is a part of a sovereign state of the United Nations so the U.N. should be protecting their interests, that they will fight (not militarily, of course) in every venue for their rights, etc. etc. etc. I don’t hear the Serbs say anything about having massacred Kosovar Albanians in the 1990s to the point where NATO had to bomb them into submission eight years ago. It’s like watching a man beat his dog, and then when the ASPCA steps in to save the animal, he throws his arms around the cowering beast and cries “You can’t take him! He’s my little doggie!” I mean, really, face up to your history already.

In other news, I’m starting work on Tuesday (about time – ed.) with the United Nations Global Compact program, which enlists private businesses to support social and economic development in poor countries. It’s an unpaid position, but it could be fun. And we’ve posted three more pictures of Cooper to the photo album. I could have posted 30, but I’m trying to show restraint. More later …

1 There is a small green movement in Albania in the form of a group of environmentalists and students who are protesting the construction of a thermoelectrical plant on the coast at Vlorë, the “Pearl of Albania”. Albania is dependent on hydroelectric power and so desperately needs more electricity; however, the government’s plan is to sell a large chunk of the power it generates to Italy, which is forbidden under EU law from building a thermoelectrical plant as environmentally damaging as the one which the government is building, and for which it is receiving Italian support. One cannot help but become very cynical here.

2 At this point on the map of Albania, the highway looks like a small intestine.

3 Our friends told us that the Prime Minister’s daughter effectively expropriated the land and had begun to knock down the villagers’ beachfront buildings so she could turn the land over to a private American or French company to build a resort. See footnote 1 about cynicism.

A bad day for dogs; other things

I took Cooper to the vet today for his bimonthly worm pills, a nail-clipping, and to have a few scrapes looked at. (While he doesn’t have worms, it turns out that all puppies should have deworming pills every two months as a preventative measure; and nail-clipping is the only grooming that our short-haired dog needs.) However, Cooper associates his veterinarian visits with injections and poking and prodding, so he doesn’t cooperate, and he fought the vet’s assistant as she tried to clip his nails, and as a result she nicked his foot – twice – with the clippers. He cried, he bled, and I just had to try to control him while she went snip snip snip. It was a very unhappy visit for him and me. Plus he has some kind of minor infection in his eye, possibly caused by me swinging a stick while he was running past me one day in the park, possibly from tussling with his park friends, so now we’ll have to put cream on his eye every day. He doesn’t even like to be brushed, so this will not be easy.

Still, his situation is better than that of a dog I saw today by the Tirana Football Club stadium. The stadium is on a run-down, unkempt little field, and the dog was pretty run-down and unkempt himself, hobbling across the street. He stopped by me and peed on the grass, and I saw that he was hobbling because he was missing a hind leg. (He had so much hair that it was hard to tell at first.) There are lots of street dogs limping along on three legs around here, probably because of run-ins with motorbikes when they’re young, but they usually have all their legs; this is the first dog I’ve seen missing a limb. I suppose it’s easier to pee if you don’t have to lift your leg first – I can only imagine how much quicker things would be if we men didn’t have to undo our zippers before we let go – but with a missing leg, his balance was off, so he peed down the front leg heel, which had an open sore from the ureic acid. Yet on he went; dogs don’t ever seem to complain about their aches and pains. I wish I were more like a dog sometime, and Abby probably does as well.

The Giants won the Super Bowl over here, just like they did in the states. I was hoping that the Albanian version would turn out slightly differently, but apparently we get the same reality as you do in the U.S., just without the same commercials. We watched the game on the Armed Forces Network, which isn’t allowed to run paid commercials; instead, its commercials fall into seven categories:

  1. PSAs about different achievements of the various branches
  2. “America Supports You” booster ads, usually featuring Grand Ole’ Opry stars
  3. Admonitions to consult the Legal Office before signing power-of-attorney documents or marrying a local
  4. Warnings against drunk driving, driving without a seatbelt, smoking, smokeless tobacco, drinking, gambling, spousal abuse, sexual harassment, or baby shaking
  5. Advertisements for God, brought to you by the various Armed Services Chaplain corps
  6. Boosters for exercising and civic engagement
  7. Reminders about Operational Security

The OpSec ones are the most fun, since we often get to see Squeakers the Operations Security Mouse foil the Evil Spy Cat. Overall, however, the ads in categories 3-7 look like they were made by a high school AV lab and they’re kind of depressing. Our lesbian friends explain “Of course the ads look like crap. They kick all the homosexuals out of the Armed Services.” Bottom line was that we didn’t get to see the Bud Bowl this year.

The Ambassador invited the Foreign Service spouses to his home for lunch last week. There were 24 of us, and the Ambassador spoke at length about his own experience as a diplomatic spouse when he went with his wife to Slovenia, where she is the Deputy Chief of Mission, before coming to Tirana; and he made it clear that he considers us an important part of the Embassy community, and he wants us all to meet monthly; and so on. The Ambassador is truly one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

Finally, for those of you who’ve read this far, I’ve stopped going to the Academy of the Arts. I never actually got any lessons, since the teacher who invited me to work there never had (or made – not sure) time for me. I have gotten some tips from the students, who seem to regard me as a pleasant curiosity (I am painfully aware that I’m more than twice their age!), but the facilities aren’t the best and the model is a 16-year old boy who can’t stop fidgeting. So it’s back to working at home from books, which is no picnic either. However, I’ve been busy lately with editing, and have even been offered an internship with the U.N. Development Programme to work on a business development project. I’m interviewing the manager tomorrow – I got the offer based on the resume they had on file, so I have no idea whether I want this or not. I think that by working, I’ll actually get more artwork done too – it’s easier for me to be focused when I don’t have an empty day yawning in front of me …


We’re back from Amsterdam after a five-day trip. The biggest challenge of the trip was the actual getting there part, since we chose to fly Alitalia. We’d heard that Alitalia was notorious for losing luggage, so we carried our bags, but apparently their plane maintenance isn’t a lot better. We had arrived with plenty of time for a 5.35 AM flight; found parking easily; checked in smoothly; boarded quickly; and had great seats at the front of the plane. At 5.35 the captain announced that we were ready to go except for “a small technical problem” that they would fix in a few minutes. At 6.00 they began handing out the water and snacks. Abby said that it was always a bad sign when you are still on the ground and they begin handing out the water and snacks.

At 6.30 they announced that we had to get off the plane, and that we’d receive more information back in the terminal. By 7.30, we’d had a cup of coffee compliments of Alitalia, but the flight staff still hadn’t announced a thing. Nonetheless, some word had gotten around somehow, because people had started lining up (which in Albania, means “clustering in a large mass around a tiny entrance”) to collect their luggage and go to the airline desk where – at 8.00 – a lone staffer would be charged with fixing all 60 passengers’ problems.

Fortunately for us, we have a guardian angel in the form of Mira, who is on the Austrian Airlines staff. Mira is a “fixer” for Americans with flight problems regardless of which airline they fly, and she was able to get us onto the 12.05 PM Lufthansa flight just minutes after she arrived at work. This meant we had a lot of time to kill -you can only visit the news kiosk so many times – but at least we’d get to where we were going, unlike a lot of other people. So we boarded, left on time, and arrived in Munich at 2.20, where we transferred to a second flight shortly thereafter for a 2.50 departure. At 2.50 the captain announced that we were ready to go except for “a small equipment problem” that they hoped to solve quickly. About 15 minutes later, he came back on the intercom to announce that they had solved the problem, but that an executive jet had made an emergency landing on the tarmac in the meantime and it had backed up all the runways. So we sat for another 20 minutes but, put into perspective, it wasn’t a problem at all. We were just glad to get to Amsterdam on the same day we had set out for it.

Amsterdam is a wonderful city. I didn’t take a lot of photos, because (a) it is all so pretty that no one thing really stands out, (b) most of the museums don’t allow photography, and (c) I was primarily using a film camera, so I was being more careful since you can’t erase the ones you don’t like, and the digital mostly stayed in the bag. The museums were fantastic – the Rijksmuseum with the Dutch Masters and the collection of silver pieces from royals past; the Rembrandt House with its paintings, etchings, and restored studios; the Van Gogh Museum; the CoBrA Museum (CoBrA was a post-war modern art movement based in Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, and is truly brilliant stuff); the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam; a secret Catholic church hidden in the attic of a townhouse from the time when open Catholic worship was forbidden; and even the Sex Museum. A note on this: the Sex Museum actually had a lot of items on display – mostly surprisingly explicit photos from the turn of the century – and it could have had a lot to say about the history of pornography and sex, but it was so badly organized that after a while it was simply boring. And since it was packed with giggling 20-somethings, it was also an annoying place to be. The Red Light District, with prostitutes in the windows chatting with passersby or filing their nails, was subtle by comparison.

We walked a lot, shopped a bit, and with one exception ate only Asian cuisine, since the Chinese food we get here is absolutely below par. Indonesian, Chinese (twice, including dim sum), sushi (twice), Japanese pancakes (if you get a chance, try these – they are delicious), and the best Thai I’ve ever had. Not a slice of pizza or a chunk of grilled meat passed our lips. In fact, we filled a backpack with Asian spices to use at home. We also attended a rather dolorous recital – piano and baritone – that our host, Fred, invited us to see. The recital featured songs by Brahms, Eisler, Debussy, Gounod, and someone else whom I can’t remember. While some of the numbers were lovely, overall it was pretty stark fare, with songs seeming to end in mid-depressive thought about the changing seasons, or accidentally leaving the baby on the bus, or whatever the hell they were singing about. (And even though I’m being snarky about the music, it had nothing to do with Fred, who is a truly generous host.)

The trip home had its own difficulty insofar as we had switched from e-tickets to paper tickets when we changed our outgoing flight, and the Alitalia people hadn’t put two and two together, so check-in took about an hour. Cooper was glad to see us, of course, but we think his sitter indulged him a bit too much because he now insists on trying to snatch food out of our hands, and just in general he seems to have a bit of an attitude. A quick story about him, insufferably proud parents that we are – the other week, we went on a Hash that started in a farmer’s field. The farmer had some chickens loose, and Cooper went after them. We were mortified, and half-expected to hear the cocking of a shotgun, but we couldn’t stop laughing nonetheless.

He did the same thing with a herd of sheep later in the hike: he’s probably thinking “one of these days, I’m gonna catch something, goddammit,” but we have no idea what he’d do with anything if he did catch it. Anyway, here are some photos from Amsterdam.

One of the many beautiful canal views; Abby; not Albanian food, thank god.

Work of Karel Appel from the CoBrA Museum; goods from the Bloemenmarket.

Finally, I have to say that we are taking a pounding against the euro: it was $1.49 when we left, and $1.51 when we got back. The only bargain I found in Amsterdam was in art supplies, since the good stuff is made in Europe; for everything else, we just had to shut our eyes and hand over the Visa. We’ve even lost somewhere between 11 and 15 percent of the dollar’s value against the lek in the last six months. When the lek is a better investment than the dollar, you’re really in trouble …