Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Every Breath You Take

Smoggy Sunrise

I remember the first time my wife came home for R&R from Baku. Those were the days when as a same-sex spouse and non-employee, I was not allowed to live with her at post unless it was a country that would recognize our relationship. And such countries were even fewer and farther between than they are now with the advancements our country and others have made in terms of marriage equality.

So in those days, I was allowed to visit on a one-month tourist visa, after which I needed to leave the country before I could return. So over the course of her two-year tour, I visited three times for a month each trip, and she came home to North Carolina for R&R twice. (Of course, that doesn’t “count” as our having done an unaccompanied tour, because our marriage didn’t “count” at the time).

All of which is to say she was in Azerbaijan without me. And I remember her first trip home because as we drive back to Chapel Hill from the airport, she kept hanging her head out of the window to sniff the air. “It smells so clean!” she kept saying. “It is almost sweet.”

I admit I didn’t get it. Clean air, or at least reasonably clean air, was something I had the luxury of taking for granted. Neither Jerusalem, with its occasional sand storms, nor Tallinn, with the #1 air quality in the world (yes really), disabused me of that privilege.

Pristina has.

There are many reasons those of us in the Foreign Service are allowed to retire after 20 years instead of the usual 25-30 for other federal employees. The biggest reason for that is the toll that living in some of the places we serve take on our health. And pollution is a big part of that toll. If you want to read some other posts on it, check out this, this and this.

Kosovo is a country without the luxury of multiple means of electricity. Basically, its options are coal and coal. The two aging coal plants in the city provide all of the country’s electricity. And they belch out pollution all year, but especially so in the winter when people need heat. There are plans for a new coal plant, which will pollute less than the two they have now. But there is simply no option other than coal. And then there are the coal fires coming from every building in the winter. Lignite is cheap and people can basically dig up piles of it to burn in their homes for heat and hot water.

Some days, you can barely see across the street for the haze created by the smoke. Most days really. Because we are in a valley and very prone to fog, the smoke and fog come together and make smog. Did you know smog freezes? I didn’t either until I came here and saw the dirty ice crystals on all the plants. The fog/smog also means that often it is impossible to fly in or out of the airport here because the runway is not long enough for the navigational equipment needed to land when you can’t do it by sight. Everyone here has missed a flight or had it diverted. Ours was diverted to Skopje, AFTER the pilot tried unsuccessfully to land and had to pull up hard at the last minute. (No, that wasn't terrifying at all...)

And the smell permeates EVERYTHING. All of your clothes, even fresh from the dry cleaners, smell as though you have been standing by a camp fire.

And you smell it in your house as well. We have air purifiers running constantly in our apartment and have extra weather stripping under the doors. And you still smell it. Our stairwell seems to funnel the smoke from outside upward to all of the apartments in our building. Even my dog sneezes when she goes outside. And I wear a scarf every day, not because it is cold but because it gives me something to breathe through. I wonder what it is doing to all of our lungs…I already breathe heavier going upstairs than I used to. And on our trips out of the country, I feel like an ex-smoker, my lungs trying to clean themselves out of the toxins I am taking in.

Soon the embassy will have air quality monitors, and we and the public will have a better idea of the amount of pollution in the air. Of course, maybe that will just make us feel worse about it. But in the meantime, I am glad we decided not to extend. Not because I am not glad to be here. I am. The work in interesting and important and the people here are great. But as a committed life-long non-smoker, it is more than a little alarming that after only five months here, it sometimes hurts to breathe.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Gezuar Vitin e Ri nga Kosove!

New Year's fireworks over Pristina

Happy New Year!

I hope whatever your 2015 was like, whether awesome or awful, that 2016 is even better.

I have to confess my 2015 was pretty awesome. Except for that little language test hiccup and the drama of getting my dog to post, both of which were ultimately overcome, things in 2015 were pretty awesome. We spent time in our new house, found a church we love, made lots of friends both at work and outside of it. We and our animal children are all healthy and happy, as is much of our family. My wife even managed to stick in another half marathon this year. And of course, the Supreme Court on June 26 ruled that marriage is a civil right. No more worrying that our marriage won't be recognized when we cross state borders!

Since we got to Kosovo, we have been able to travel more, already adding six countries to the list of places we’ve been. Just since our trip to a winery in Stobi, Macedonia, we have visited Neuschwanstein in Germany, Munich twice (the second time for the Christmas markets), Salzburg, Austria (also for the markets), Sarajevo, Bosnia (for a public diplomacy offsite), as well as a road trip through Albania and Montenegro on our way to Dubrovnik, Croatia.

But the purpose of this post is not to give you the abbreviated version of my Christmas letter. The purpose it to try to jumpstart my blogging again. If you have read my blog for any length of time, you know I kind of suck at New Year's resolutions. But this year I am resolving to do two things: blog more and read more.

After my lapse in blogging, I considered hanging up my blogger hat and walking away. But a few folks asked me not to, plus there is still cool stuff to share. So for the blogging, I am going to try to fill in a few things I have done personally and professionally over the past few months. For example, never mind that I haven't shared any pictures from our cool travels, I don't even think I mentioned Randy Berry, the LGBT envoy, came to post.

And then I am resolving to post at least once a week. Hopefully.

And on reading, I am going to shoot for at least 25 books this year. Preferably real books (I want to wean myself away from reading the iPad in bed). My hope is more, like one a week, but I am a notoriously slow reader. So I am not going to set myself up for failure.

So for now, I will leave you with this, a video that we did as a New Year's message from our Ambassador. And like him I wish you a Happy New Year!!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Markets!

The first time I ever went to a real Christmas Market was in Estonia, and it was love at first Gluwine!

The sights, the smells, the spirit, I love everything about it.

So this year, because we are so close to Germany (a quick 2-hour flight to Munich), we decided to check out some Christmas markets this year.

We went for Munich (which has like five or more in different parts of the city) and then took the train to Salzburg, Austria to check out their market as well.

The Munich Markets:


The Salzburg Market


And then in Salzburg, there was this (I missed the beginning):

Sunday, October 04, 2015

So They Make Good Wine in Macedonia

I haven't left Kosovo since I got here back in the beginning of August, but I finally rectified that yesterday.

CLO (Community Liaison Officer, or basically the morale officer for post) organized a trip to the Stobi Winery in Macedonia.

Now we all know I pretty much don't drink (probably why I didn't get promoted yesterday...it is sort of a Foreign Service requirement...), but I do like the taste of some wine. That said, we decided to go on the trip mostly for my wife, who likes wine a lot.

But actually, they had some really good wine! And the trip was a lot of fun.

We toured the vineyards first. They have some 600 hectares of grapes of a variety of types.

Pinot Noir and Riesling grapes in one bunch

You can see the mountains in the background

Then we toured the winery, where we got to see all the way from "skvishing" to the end of the process.

And then we got to taste...there was a frickin' lot of wine. We sampled 12 before lunch. I just took sips...some of our group were VERY happy by lunchtime (which was at 3:30! Twelve samples before a lunch that late seems risky, but fortunately everyone was very behaved.)

The logo comes from a mosaic at nearby Roman ruins...
that I didn't hear about until we got home! Guess we'll go back!

We ended up buying four cases of wine, good wine, for only about $135. We bought Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvingon, Cuvee and Sirah. We figure they will make good gifts when we go to other people's houses plus we will have plenty to serve here as well.

Plus, the trip got me another country visited...I love living in Europe.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Houston, we have an apartment

It is no secret that I am a nester.

I like to have my home decorated with things that mean something to me: art, souvenirs, pictures, things that tell stories.

So when we pack our HHE (and to a degree, but less so, our UAB), I like to include things that make our place overseas feel like home.

Apparently, my wife also likes that I do this, because this time, even she was clamoring for something to make our apartment (which is ginormous) look less like a corporate apartment.

So we were both really happy when our HHE finally arrived a week ago Tuesday. And there was lots of it, like 6000 lbs (and that number is low because I deliberately reduced how much we brought this time!). Of course, probably half that amount is books...

Lotsa Stuff

The cats approved of the boxes

And the paper
And true to form, I got all of our stuff unpacked and the boxes thrown out within two days (with the help of a local holiday...yay! Bajram!..on Thursday). Admit it, you wish you were married to me.

Making progress
Friday, I put in the order for GSO to come hang our pictures (I tried it myself, but the walls are concrete and I lack concrete nails or transportation to go buy some). And they came yesterday. So now we even have art on the wall.

Even my office at work has a touch of home:

Why yes, I am from SC, why do you ask?
Now it feels more like home...for another 21 or 22 months anyway...

Monday, August 24, 2015

Anibar Internation Animation Festival

 Well, I didn't get the entire weekend off, but at least my job is lots of fun.

Sunday, I headed to Peje, a town in the mountains near the border with Montenegro.

We went with the Ambassador because the city hosts, and we help sponsor, the Anibar International Animation Festival.

We helped the festival bring Mike Reiss, one of the writers of The Simpsons, to speak and do workshops with the attendees.

Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, even if it was for work!

Plus, the mountains there are gorgeous!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Visiting My Happy Place

So this weekend I got to take a road trip.

Not my first, because I am a PD officer, so we get out more than your average bear...er...Foreign Service Officer.

But this one was for fun.

The CLO (Community Liaison Officer) organized a trip to the Gracanica Monastery and Ulpiana.

We started off at the monastery, a Serbian orthodox monastery established in 1321 on the ruins of a 6th century church.

Gracinica Monastery

The monastery is really beautiful and has some absolutely amazing frescoes inside. You aren't allowed to take pictures inside in order to protest the frescoes, but I did take some shots from outside.

After the monastery, we grabbed some lunch...
Ribs and creme with pitalka...yum!
And then headed to Ulpiana, a Roman city located about 30 minutes outside of Pristina that was established in 169 AD and reached its peak of development in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.

We were given a tour by the head archaeologist, who also is an alum of one of our programs. They are doing amazing work there despite the challenges they face (like that the country can't afford to buy the land and so they lease it for 3 years at a time and have no security in being able to keep it. Plus the land is divided up into tons of parcels, most owned by Serbian farmers who distrust the Kosovo government, so they have been able to excavate only a tiny fraction of the site. Even so, they have uncovered a massive basilica, a smaller basilica with a baptisterium, a Roman bath, and several cemeteries.
Basilica 1

Basilica 2 with Baptisterium
Roman bath

Definitely need to go back. Archaeology is clearly my happy place!