Monday, November 30, 2009

Two More Years!

Well, it's official! We have been re-assigned to Skopje for an additional two years and we are quite thrilled with our decision. Originally, we had not planned on attempting to stay due to our dissatisfaction with the high school our son attended last year. This year however, he is doing so well in the new high school, that we would like to keep him there until graduation.
Our bidding went very well, and our original strategy was successful. We had concentrated on posts with language training in an effort to return to the US for a year, allowing us to complete Collier's surgery prior to our next posting. We felt this was the best approach even though it meant 4 high schools in 4 years for Christopher. And it worked, we were offered positions in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Tunis, Tunisia, which would have been perfect. But the European Bureau representative threw a twist in by asking us if we wanted to stay in Skopje or move on, which got us thinking and took away some of our excitement about the new opportunities. We really do love everything about our life here in Skopje, so now that the school problem was resolved, it seemed silly to leave! So although we had already received a handshake offer on Baku, my husband informed the Management Officer and the DCM here that he would be interested in staying, only if they approved, and within a couple hours we had a handshake on Skopje! The Embassy was stunned that it all happened so quickly, and we took that as a sign that it was meant to be. So, we will remain in Macedonia and have to postpone Collier's surgery for a while longer, but we are completely happy with our "new" assignment!


Well, it's that time of year again....time for "chestnuts roasting on an open fire...." Here in Skopje, chestnuts are available just about every 50 feet in the center of town, usually being "roasted" over a gas grill type contraption. Scruffy looking men bundled up for warmth heat them, turning carefully with silver tongs, and package them in paper cones for customers. I am deeply surprised at how popular they are, particularly due to the hideous smell!!! When I hear The Christmas Song being crooned by Bing Crosby (or one of the other many artists who have shared their version of the Nat King Cole classic), it seems so romantic and iconic. It loses a lot of it's charm when you actually smell the chestnuts roasting on the Skopje Plostad! I don't know if it's the heating source or the chestnuts themselves, but it's nasty!!! However, they must be a delicious treat, as folks line up to buy them and we watched two little boys fight over a paper cone full of them this past weekend--you would have thought it was jellybeans or chocolate in that cone! Maybe I should try some, maybe if I hold my

Monday, September 28, 2009

Stobi Photos

Our weekend trip allowed me the opportunity to replace some of the Stobi photos I lost when the hard drive crashed...hope you enjoy! The mosaics were uncovered this time!

Lake Dojran/Stobi

This past weekend we decided to get out of town and explore a bit of Macedonia. Of course, we did have an ulterior motive...cheddar cheese! A gentleman who works in the USAID office owns a guesthouse in Star Dojran, which is close to the Greek border, so we rented it for the weekend. It's a lovely villa perched high atop a hill overlooking the Lake Dojran with spectacular views from the two balconies. If not for the 5 kids in tow, it would have been a very relaxing place to spend the Equipped with all the necessary amenities, i.e. Playstation, satellite tv, dvd's galore, swimming pool with jets, etc., the house offered us a nice place to stay within an hour's drive of Thessaloniki and the coveted cheddar cheese! The kids really enjoyed the villa, and even though it was a bit too chilly for swimming, they are far braver than I and jumped right in... a move I will surely regret letting them do when they are all home sick this week.

Saturday, we made the trip to Thess and stocked up on plenty of cheese and enjoyed a terrific meal at TGI Friday's...always a favorite. We had a really fun, goofy waiter who plied our kids with plenty of goodies...balloon animals, coloring books, crayons, puzzles, etc. They had a great time and everyone enjoyed a familiar favorite food. Not sure it was worth the outrageous cost, but it was a treat!

When we returned from Thess, we strolled along Lake Dojran and photographed the beach and it's scenery. It was an interesting place. You can visibly see how much the lake has disappeared over the years. Both the Greeks and the Macedonians pull from the lake, and it is taking a toll on the water levels. A while back there were numerous problems with the water, but everything is clean and safe now thankfully. It seems like a lovely place for hanging out on a hot summer day, as the beach is actually sand, not pebbles as in Ohrid. There are several little shops nearby for buying snacks and fresh produce and a couple nice looking hotels. Several Macedonian families were picnicking in the park like area near the beach, where there are some grills available for public use. Fisherman dotted the lake, though in much smaller numbers than what we saw in the morning hours. It was a very peaceful environment and we enjoyed it.

After another night of dvd's and playstation soccer, we woke up early and packed up our gear. Eager to return home with our bounty of cheese and watch NFL, we headed back towards Skopje, admiring the beautiful mountains and amazed at all the trucks and tractors overflowing with loads of grapes, presumably en route to one of the many vineyards for pressing. In the heart of wine country, we passed many such vehicles! We stopped for an hour in Stobi, the ancient Roman city for a guided tour of the artifacts and discoveries there. Chris and I have been before, but we thought it would be a good educational experience for the kids. They all seemed to enjoy learning about life in the Roman times and witnessing some of the marvelous structures that have been unearthed there. It was a terrific weekend getaway!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Odd encounter at the deli

Last week, I stopped quickly by Vero to pick up some groceries, like I do almost daily. This particular day there was no line for the deli counter, so I decided to pick up a few things. Usually, the section is crowded and with no number system, it can be very frustrating dealing with the rudeness of those who arrive after you, yet order before you...especially the macho men, who don't think it necessary to wait. With no risk of being aggravated, I asked the clerk for "plovna kilo of podravec" and was surprised by her reaction. I know my Macedonian is quite lacking, but I have never had trouble buying a half kilo of cheese before. She pointed at the cheese in the cooler and repeated Mlejko, Mlejko over and over again. I was confused. Of course the cheese is made with milk, aren't most of them? She seemed adamant that I be aware of this fact and seemed to not want to give me any! I asked in English if there was a problem with the cheese, had it spoiled? She said no and reluctantly sliced it for me. Given her odd reaction to the Podravec(Swiss-like cheese, great on Triscuits), I decided to forgo asking for the mozzarella! I left quite confused and wondering if maybe it had something to do with it being the month of Ramadan. Had she thought I was an Albanian Muslim? That didn't seem to make sense either since I don't remember Muslims avoiding dairy during Ramadan. A friend suggested maybe there is yet another Orthodox holiday fasting period going on, and that scenario is probably most likely. I recall Gordana discussing how she abstained from eggs, meat, and dairy prior to Easter and Christmas. Maybe there is another event/holiday on the horizon and she was trying to help me stay in the good graces! Religion is very important to the Macedonians and that was very evident at the deli that day.


In my last post I wrote about how the school year starting was a bold reminder of the friends who have moved on and of how different life is without them. In the last couple of weeks, we lost several more. All these farewell receptions/dinners at the Ambassador's residence have left me seriously aware of my lack of dressy clothes! As many of you know, life in the foreign service is full of transitions. This is our third two-year tour, which basically means that every year, we have to begin thinking about the bidding process and where we will end up next. It seems like we are always in transition mode, and I think that helps us keep things in perspective, but also prevents us from putting down stronger roots. Since it is summer, we are indeed bidding again. It is both an exciting and stressful time!

For those of you unfamiliar with the process, it basically works like this:
1. The department provides a list of positions available for each speciality/position at each grade(promotion)level. Chris is required to bid on at least 6 jobs, and they must be in at least 3 different geographical areas--i.e. Europe, Western Hemphisphere, East Asia, Middle East, etc. He may add as many additional jobs to the bid list as he likes, but those original 6 must be in his particular position and at his current rank. Because we are currently serving at a hardship post, he is permitted to bid up one rank as well, qualifying for a higher level post.
2. I get to do what I love...researching countries we are interested in. Looking at schools, crime levels, housing issues, shopping opportunities, etc. to determine whether or not the post is adequate for our family's needs can be extremely fun for me. I enjoy learning about new places and I think people are foolish if they don't properly explore the options thoroughly. I don't ever want to end up somewhere with bugs as big as my foot or where I will have to get 5 kids to choke down anti-malarials everyday! We talk about what I have discovered and balance the kid's needs with what will help further Chris' career most effectively and come up with a list of preferences.
3. Once he submits his list, it is up to him to actively pursue the positions he is most interested in. After all, all those posts available have someone leaving and those people are also interested in the same places we basically he has to sell himself to potential posts. He does this by relaying his experience, his abilities, and by providing references from current and previous bosses and co-workers. It definitely helps to know people who know people!!
4. Then, we wait, and this is the stressful part. A post will select Chris and the regional bureau of that post will give it's approval of their decision and assign him accordingly. Hopefully, Chris will be offered a handshake deal on a post sometime in October and we will have some idea where we will end up next year. Techically, handshakes cannot be issued prior to October, but we have noticed some on the bid reporting sheet already, probably officers coming out of Iraq who get special compensation by receiving early notification. We are just praying that the place we want most will still be available when the jobs get panneled!

This particular bidding cycle has been challenging for us, as we have a lot more details to consider this time. We have been focusing on language designated posts, meaning that Chris would have to learn another new language prior to starting his overseas assignment. That would allow us a year in the US to complete Collier's surgery and post-op follow ups and would be the ideal situation. However, that would mean Christopher would end up attending 4 high schools in 4 years, which is dreadful, though he swears he doesn't mind. Can you believe he will be off to college during our next posting???? That is dreadful!!!!! Plus, all of the other little things like should we pursue another hardship, and enjoy the extra money, or take a "dream" post, which will definitely strain the bank account instead of filling it? Ultimately, we are hoping for Budapest, which takes care of the language detail, is a step up in responsibility for my husband, has a FANTASTIC school, and is generally a beautiful place to live. We are certainly interested in many others, including nearby Belgrade, cold but cozy Vilnius, as well as neighboring Tallinn and Riga, and exotic Tunisia. In fact, this is probably the best bid list we've ever had with great options like Ljubljana, Baku, and Munich too. I am sure we will be happy wherever we get placed! I just hate waiting to find out!!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

First Day of School!

I know that I say this every year, but it's so true....I love the fall. Now I know it's not exactly fall yet, but it's approaching! Although the air is still heavy with heat and the leaves won't change color for a while, the NFL preseason has begun, and the kids have returned to school!

This year all 4 kids will attend the same school and it is a big change for the older two. Chris was hesitant to switch schools, but I think he will prosper and feel much more comfortable at his new school, even with his "uncool" little sisters hanging around. Arianna was a bit disappointed to find out that she will have different teachers this year (as of last week, she was supposed to have the same ones as last year), but she is highly adaptable so it will be fine. Alina is excited to be in the same classroom with the same teacher again, though she wishes there were new girls in her class, as she is now the only one. Anastasia is back amongst her friends and making new ones fast and she seemed thrilled to be back.

I dropped them off this morning and I have to say it was quite bittersweet and a bit sad. Last year, the school was teeming with other Moms introducing themselves, reconnecting after the holidays, and chatting, but this year is was significantly quieter. Last year a large group of us meandered to the tennis club next door for coffee and conversation, this year no one did, though I did have the chance to catch up with a couple of friends in the playground and parking areas. It was a stark reminder that a large turnover has occurred. This summer, we lost some very dear people in our little school community, a rather huge chunk of PTO volunteers, who lunched together regularly and enjoyed each other's company.

I was so busy with work and traveling this summer that it didn't really sink in until this morning how different life would be without them! Of course there will be new parents to connect with and life will go on, but these ladies were special and they are already sorely missed. So, if you are reading this, and you all know who you are....please know that you are in our hearts, thoughts, and prayers and that we miss you! Now is the time to heed the advice I give the kids so frequently, yes, it's sad when a friend leaves us, but we can always keep in touch and making new friends can be very exciting, so chin up, be strong, and hang in there! Fall is the season of change, and I guess now is the time to embrace right? Cheers.