What day is it?

September 17, 2020

Oh dear; I wrote on the 11th that “School starts in person tomorrow,” but what I meant was Monday the 14th. Not Saturday the 12th.

On Wednesday (yesterday?) I wrote in an email that “we are in our first week of in-person school,” then I thought no, it must be longer than that. Deleted “first” and wrote in “second.” Then thought again no, yesterday was Tuesday and that was our second day biking. So no, first week. Third day. It felt like a month.

All the news is overwhelming. And it’s here, too, in this tiny little country, which is considered such a backwater by Europe that it’s where Voldemort fled to hide after failing to kill Harry. Two nights ago the smell of wood smoke filled the air, and we went out on our balcony after dark to see the fires burning on the mountains above the city. We came back inside to hear a booming sound, then read in the news the next day that a car bomb had detonated a block from where my son’s best friend lives.

I grew up in a country plagued by car bombs, although that was political; this is mafia business. I want to move to New Zealand.

Til We Have Faces

September 11, 2020

School starts in person tomorrow, face to face, for our school and all Albanian public schools. Some private school have been operating already, and the Ministry of Education has given all of us strict guidelines for distancing, masking, and screening which we have been rehearsing and building into school structures and policies diligently for the past two weeks.

I see the admin at our school, and help them as much as I can; I am glad not to be in that position myself but I know what it feels like. This current situation reminds me acutely of our time in Colombia: the constant daily cycles of risk assessment and mitigation, looking after a diverse and dispersed international team, the constantly changing parameters and contingencies shifting all the time. As an international community, the crises multiply and become layered as we all watch our passport countries from afar and the sense of helplessness increases.

We feel responsible for things that are beyond our control.

Signs, measuring tape, e-mails, touchless thermometers, a proliferation of hand sanitizer. Battling traffic that is already crazy on the way to school. At the end of class yesterday, checking for understanding, but they only had questions:

“Is it true that we aren’t going to be allowed to eat at school?”

“Not indoors. Only outside.”

“What if someone faints from wearing a mask?”

“Then the teacher will administer first aid, and take you to the front porch, which counts as outdoors, to lie down.”

It’s my job now to have the answers to these questions. We just have no way to know what is actually going to happen this year. We never have, we just thought we did.


ETA – I thought I was fine, excited and happy even, but now that it’s about to be real I am scared spitless. Irrationally, unmistakably terrified.

School is underway

September 2, 2020

We have begun school online this year, with a plan to switch to face-to-face on September 14 – the same day that Albanian schools will launch. All summer, I watched workmen refreshing the paint on the school building next to our house (a “Nëntvjeçare,” or 9-year school which is the basic guaranteed education level in Albania). It’s an old building, known as “The Red School,” because of the color – not necessarily any Communist affiliation although that would have been a given at the time when the school was built. Anyway, I figured when I saw them sprucing it up that the plan would be to return to school face to face in the fall.

I just deleted a long explanation about ministry of education requirements in Albania because I was even boring myself! The long and short of it is that this is where I am right now – in an empty second-floor classroom, facing an open window and maskless. The day is warm, but not as scorching as it has been this past month. I can see a glimpse of the mountains out the window. The chairs and desks behind me are spaced a careful 1.5 m apart, but there isn’t quite enough space for the teacher to stand at the front a full 2m from the nearest student, so we are going to have to do something about that before the 14th. This morning I taught two 90-minute classes online. A few of my colleagues are in the other part of the building, but most are teaching from home. Still there is coffee in the pot and the requisite temp check and screening every morning when we come in.

So I’m hoping to find the odd hour here or there to work on my passion projects, the memoir (now conceptualized as auto-ethnography) and a fantasy story for young readers.

Meanwhile, we are severely short-handed as an admin staff member had to leave the country for a non-COVID medical emergency and we’re scrambling to redistribute his workload among those of us here. It looks like I’ll be picking up Student Council advising and a few more study halls and lunch duty supervision days… but what the heck. At least today I have time to write.



Thoughts on a Writing Retreat

August 23, 2020

It was while we were discussing Perenelle Flamel in my virtual local Harry Potter book club that I made the decision: “In August,” I vowed in the chat, “I am going to take a 3-day writing retreat ALONE somewhere in Albania that I’ve always wanted to go.”

And I did it. The act of telling someone I was going to do it was enough to actually nudge me into making it a reality. The stars aligned. I was sitting with my husband after breakfast on day talking about his work when I realized that after Wednesday the following week, he would be off work, and we would not be hosting any playdates at our house. I would be free to go…

It was thrilling, scouting AirBnB options with good writing spaces, scrutinizing the photos of apartment interiors to see which had dining tables near windows and were located on quiet streets.

I decided not to leave the city, because we don’t have a car and I didn’t want to deal with transportation. I booked a place across town with a spacious area for writing. Just two nights – leaving Thursday afternoon, returning Saturday mid-day.

As it happened, I spent most of that time working through an online training on using the Google platform as a learning management system for virtual school (very useful, I recommend it). But the sheer happiness I felt being on my own, alone, responsible only for myself, was thrilling. I knit, I watched a movie (Mr. Jones, which I also recommend), I cooked what I wanted to eat for myself, I worked out in the room. It was fantastic.

I wrote half of a short story – ethnographic fiction, if you will.

I couldn’t wait to do it again.

I also started working with a coach this summer, someone I knew (vaguely) from my childhood in Peru whom I reconnected with while working on this book project. One thing I have figured out in adulthood is that when I need help, I usually have a pretty good sense of whom to go to. Kathi has been a fantastic help. With her support, I figured out that the next step was to do another writing retreat – and to do it in a structured way, with accountability built in. So I signed up for Lisa Munro’s Inspired writing retreat, which happened yesterday.

Here’s a bit of a review, comparing and contrasting the two retreats.

  1. Time. The intensive one-day writing retreat provided a great structure for writing, but the longer one I did on my own felt better to me in terms of pacing. I really valued the down-time alone, and I think if I do this one-day intensive again I will nest it inside a longer solo retreat where I do more thinking and planning beforehand, and also have time afterwards (like I am doing today) for writing all the things I think about after the structured part of the writing is over. Ride the wave a bit, if you will. Because of time zone differences, I had most of the day Saturday to do Saturday stuff at home, and then came here in the afternoon. The workshop ran from 5:00-11:00 p.m. and I was pretty sleepy by the end, so maybe even cutting out early and then picking up again in the morning would work better for me.
  2. Space. I’ve used two different AirBnBs now, and have had good experiences both times. Both have been quiet, clean, and had good writing vibes. The cheaper one was farther away, but bigger. But both have been good.
  3. Supplies. Based on the first experience, I brought a few things I didn’t need to this one, but also neglected to bring one significant essential the second time (coffee). But what I will always pack are:
    1. Mosquito repellent
    2. Eye mask
    3. Workout clothes
    4. Knitting
    5. Earplugs
    6. COFFEE (we drink instant these days)

A further note about the coffee – Albanians drink A LOT of coffee, but it’s an entirely social event. You drink coffee in cafes, usually macchiatos or espresso shots; you spend two hours sipping from one tiny cup sometimes. But people don’t necessarily drink coffee with (or in lieu of) breakfast as many in the US do. Drip coffee is very nearly unheard of; it’s either espresso-based or instant powder. At the school where I teach, there are so many American staff that a drip coffee maker has been installed in the staff room, but it is vile. I drink it anyway.

And finally, I’ve decided (again) to start blogging again. I think I have a bigger sense of purpose now, than just blogging for the sake of blogging. I’ll say more about that later.

Structure and accountability. And coffee.

Perenelle and Me

August 23, 2020

Perenelle Flamel gets very little text space in the Harry Potter books, but my virtual “local” book club has developed an extensive fan theory about her life. Building on the obvious bond between Dumbledore and Nicolas, we think Perenelle was either a Hermione in their triad and/or lived a full and happy (long!) life more or less apart from them, collaborating when she wanted to and doing her own thing when she didn’t.

We wondered to what extent was she consulted in the decision to destroy the Philosopher’s Stone? Or in its creation and maintenance? Were she and Nicolas always of the same mind on these matters? What were those conversations like?

I found myself in a frustrating position this summer, in part because of Covid-19 restrictions on travel, and partly because of the work imbalance in our household. These swings happen from time to time, and they usually catch me off guard. Both of us have gone in and out of of academic work. There have been times when we have worked together (even job-sharing) and times – like now – when our work is completely separate. When our work lives are out of sync, inevitably there’s a bit of friction. (To be sure, job sharing wasn’t always easy either!)

During the lockdown period from March to the end of May, we fell into a rhythm that felt like teamwork. Every morning would start with family cuddle time in the big bed (we have two kids), just as the sun was coming up. Then my husband would make breakfast while the two of us sorted out the day: Who had what calls, who would be using the workspace in the master bedroom – we don’t have a dedicated office in our small flat – and who would be on kid coaching duty for their distance learning.

My husband’s work had shifted from extensive international travel to completely virtual. Instead of flying to Bangladesh, he was now working odd hours – conducting online interviews and meetings at 7:00 a.m. instead. But it worked, it all worked better than we imagined it could.

We would take hour-long lunch breaks and eat out on the terrace/balcony with the kids, soaking in the silence and birdsong of a traffic-free city on lockdown. We could hear the wind sweeping the streets, and marvelled at the clarity of the sky. My husband would do the daily grocery shopping on the government-approved schedule (we had to request permission daily, using an app, and had an assigned hour to run our errands).  I would finish my work for the day with a video workout in the bedroom/office while listening to a YouTube tutorial for my AP English class, and my husband would make supper.

For us, there was something almost spiritual, perhaps even sacred, in these daily rituals.

I miss it.

When school ended, I leaped at the chance to work with a friend who is offering services as a writing mentor, to return to the book projects I had left dormant when I started teaching. I have to be honest with myself and admit that part of my putting down that writing work and walking away for a bit had to do with a complex set of thoughts and feelings about the work itself, especially the non-fiction/memoir. Is is worth it? Am I worthy to do this work? What kind of book is this even going to be?

So I let myself get terribly busy with school last fall, and let these projects sit on the shelf.

But I had an abiding sense of responsibility and accountability, especially for the memoir, because of the 15 or so people I had interviewed for this project. I want their stories to be included and honored in my book. I just don’t know how I’m going to do that.

So I tried to get back into it. My writing mentor has been great – and the feedback truly valuable for improving my writing and envisioning what both these book projects could be (the second one is a middle-grade fantasy novel, something I think my kids would enjoy reading). But after going through everything I had written in the year before teaching… I had nothing new.

I just couldn’t find writing time.

As school ended, my husband got incredibly busy with his work – it was just how the timing worked out; a confluence of factors piled deep loads of work onto his desk – and the kids were, well, they were stuck at home bored with nothing to do. They’re at the age where friends are of the utmost important, essential, so we sorted out some playdate rotations and friend visits and outings to the park or other Covid-safe locations. But this…. this took all my time. Plus, because my husband was so overwhelmed with work, I took on the full extent of all the housework: shopping, cleaning, cooking, laundry. After two months of lockdown + virtual school, the house was a disgusting mess. I normally have help once or twice a week, because Albanians generally hold an extremely high standard of cleanliness that I cannot match, but obviously this was off the table during a pandemic. The house got so bad that I started watching YouTube cleaning tutorials just to get a sense of how to tackle it all. It took about two or three weeks to get it sorted (one day I spent three hours just dusting Legos). And I got the kids to help, of course. But it was still all on me.

And there was also my work for school. Sure, school was out for the summer, we went through an emotional virtual evaluation, and I was still on the hook waiting to see exam results. Meanwhile, planning for 2020-21 started the minute that the 2019-20 academic year ended. I will be teaching only one class for the second time; I have two new preps, and big plans to write a new curriculum for one of them. But limitations on what books we could get without traveling to the US meant that I had to do some pretty major improvising with what is already in the school library or on my own shelves. Any time I could carve out for working – a few hours here and there while my kids were abandoned to their screens – were usually given to planning and organizing my classes.

So, between housework and planning for the new school year and shlepping kids to playdates – and hosting them at our house two or three days a week – basically I found no time or space for writing.

To be continued…




Another Sunday në Karentinë

April 26, 2020

We’re not really in quarantine. It’s not even lockdown. It’s restricted movement for social distancing. But that takes too long to say.

The specific rules in Tirana keep shifting, but the pattern has fallen into a rhythm. For several weekends in a row the whole city, the whole country I guess, was on total lockdown from Friday evening until Monday morning. Nobody was to leave their homes, at all, for any reason. In an emergency you were to call emergency services. No shops or businesses whatsoever were to open, for any reason.

These are the moments that feel sobering, with an odd sort of clarity – the skies turn the most pure azure, when everything stops. You hear the wind, and birds, and small household noises rising up from the neighborhood nearby. It feels like a crisis but also a deep silent stillness. You hear an occasional siren and, from all over the city, the periodic calls to prayer.

Recently, these restrictions have eased up, and as the weather gets warmer and the sunshine more insistent, there is a swell of energy and movement. Last weekend the elderly were allowed out on Saturday morning, and mothers with children under 10 on Sunday morning. I went out with Oz on Sunday and maybe half the people we encountered under the exuberantly leafed-out trees were mothers with kids under 10. This Sunday, maybe a third. People were just everywhere. Some wearing masks, many not. A clandestine coffee business had opened up and was furtively handing out espresso in paper cups to people lined up (well-spaced) outside.

During the work week, we can go out shopping – one person per household, once a day. For a long time Gimli was our designated shopper – it made me nervous, not so much the threat of contagion but police presence just generally makes me nervous. I’m the most scrupulous person you’ve met but I always feel like I’m going to be interrogated for something or other. Anyway, after our Sunday excursion last week I felt freer about going out so I’ve taken over the grocery shopping. It’s nice, actually. There is always a cluster of older men hanging out across from our neighborhood grocery store smoking and yakking. It’s like they can’t help it – they have to see each other.

Tonight we have a Zoom call with my in-laws. Off to supper.




April 21, 2020

It’s been too quiet here for too long.

Last night I had my first COVID-19 nightmare. It didn’t seem like it was related to the virus, until I realized that the keyword was “lockdown.” I dreamed it was a code red at school, and we had to initiate lockdown procedures because of armed assailants approaching. It’s been a long time since I’ve woken up from a nightmare but happily I was able to get back to sleep quickly. In part because I’m so tired all the time.

Our new normal here in Tirana is working from home, doing school remotely, only leaving the house for essential errands (grocery shopping and paying the bills). Every afternoon we hear sirens from police cars to initiate curfew. For a long time it was at 1:00 p.m., now it’s 5:30, and then the eerie silence begins.

Eerie, but beautiful too. We hear birds, and wind, the quiet sounds of a neighborhood – voices, household sounds, even roosters. It’s like living in a village somewhere off the main roads.



May 24, 2019

Four years ago today I graduated from my doctoral program. Something about graduation season always makes me feel queasy. I had my first anxiety attack the night before my high school graduation. A year later, I broke up with my high school boyfriend a week before his college graduation (we were way too serious for our age, but we seriously thought we were going to get married the following year). I associate graduations with this raw, sleep-deprived feeling that I’m staring over the edge of a flat earth into some kind of abyss.

And that sounds way too melodramatic. I’m just trying to figure out where this queasy feeling is coming from. I’m nervous about the coming summer, to be sure, but it doesn’t really seem like it should be as scary as it feels. Last summer was such an emotional low point, I don’t want to go through that again. But I’m starting to have the same kind of insomnia again, mired in self-recrimination over things that happened *years* ago. It makes no sense to my waking brain but I’m having a hard time shutting it off.

the madness of march

March 27, 2019

I don’t understand how so many stunningly awful things have happened this month in my circle of awareness. I know some of you, my blog-friends, are living excruciating things yourselves. Sometimes it feels like the apocalypse. But I think whether it is or not is up to us. A wise friend once told me, “it’s not so much what happened, but how we respond to it.”

My sister’s brother-in-law passed away suddenly, just a week before the 14th anniversary of her late husband’s sudden death – which means that the mother of those two men is now childless.

My best friend from grad school lost a baby at 21 weeks – and nearly lost her life from septic shock.

Another sudden death of a former student, in India.


I feel like there was a time when life didn’t feel like this, didn’t feel like things falling apart all around. Or did I just not see it?


March 27, 2019

When I pulled my backpack purse around to put my cell phone in it, I saw that the main zipper was open. For a flash I thought “how careless, I didn’t close it” but then I saw the shadowy gap where my wallet should be and wasn’t.

It was a really pretty wallet, camel skin that my husband brought me from Afghanistan.

All the running around, shouting, trying not to panic, trying not to let my distress kill the joy of the day for my kids – we were just outside the Acropolis in Athens, and in the moment that I had leaned back to take a photo of an old Orthodox church with the top of the Acropolis peering over the rock’s edge above it, I had been aware of people behind me but I was absorbed in the moment, framing the shot, soaking in the almost spiritual vibe of the place.

Long story short, I lost neither cell phone nor passport but I did lose my credit card, debit card, driver’s licence, a SIM card for my phone in the US, maybe a few other random items, and 100 Euros in cash. And my serenity. I’m still worried about identity theft, but I’ve already replaced the credit and debit cards. The money isn’t insignificant but it’s not that much either, in the grand scheme of things. It translates into books and yarn that I was planning to buy and won’t, now. At least not this year.

And I wasn’t alone: my husband still had all his cash and cards and could carry us through the rest of the trip.

It made me think, though, about how during the five years in Colombia, in a city where nearly everyone on our team had a wallet or phone stolen at least once, I never once had my pocket picked or home robbed. But I also never once let my guard down. And this affected – deeply – my experience of living in that city. It was a mutually reinforcing dynamic, the guardedness and my unhappiness there – if I had felt more connected, more welcomed, perhaps I would have been less guarded. If I had been less guarded, less defensive, perhaps I would have formed closer attachments to people and places in Colombia. But I did neither.

Sure, there are a few people I feel great affection for – the Colombian women on our team in particular – but that affection is still colored by the disaffection I feel towards the country as a whole. (And I still feel guilty, a sense of failure, for this.)

In Athens, my wallet was stolen. In an unguarded moment, someone took advantage of my happiness and trust and did me injury. And yet I still have that memory of seeing the Parthenon for the first time, tears surprising my eyes as the immense weight of history washed over me – the tangible reality of the white stones in front of me. All those years of poring over flat diagrams on a white page, and now the constructed thing made real, with all its attached significance. I let down my guard, and all this experience flooded in.