The road ahead

"Let's look on the bright side: we're having an adventure,
and most people live and die without being as lucky as we are."
William Goldman, The Pricess Bride

We're heading into a new adventure.  After 15 years, we are leaving the USAID world behind and we are entering the exciting world of being full-time employees with UNDP.  Well, Doug is, anyway.  He has been offered a position in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, so we are once again packing up and getting ready to settle into a new place. The movers are doing their initial visit on Tuesday.

The big advantage of having grown up as a TCK* is that even though Dushanbe is literally at the back end of the world, a former schoolmate of mine from the Alman Lisesi in Istanbul has lived in Dushanbe for years; he has already connected us with the local newsletter, a travel agency, a real estate agency, and lots of potentially new friends.

The geographic area is completely new to us.  It's another post-Soviet country just like Armenia but even more remote and more rugged. Over 90% of the country is covered by mountains and over 50% of the country is 3,000 meters (9,800 ft) above sea level. It will be a challenge but then, what would life be without challenges? Boring, that's what.  Travel times to Europe and especially to the US will be very long. Tajikistan has a border with China and while China is big, this may give you an idea just how far away this is.  Central Asia.  Smack on the roof of the world. It borders Afghanistan. We are going to buy a 4WD for this country. Boom.

Also new to us is the UNDP.  New lingo, new regulations, new rules.  With USAID, legally you get almost all the benefits of State or USAID employees in respect to moving expenses, consumables shipments, educational allowances, etc.  In reality, contractors rarely get the full package and it has dramatically decreased in recent years.  We've only once gotten the flights for deployment paid. Once.  There was the remarkable company that assumed we'd hitch a trailer to our car and move ourselves (although, to be honest, we've done that before).  Contractors simply are a lower form of life.  With the UNDP, this is so, so different - we simply get everything that's in the book.  We don't even have to fight over money for the kids. Here, take some start-up money to cover your initial cost.  Here, take those flights.  Oh, home leave flight, check.  It's very new to us, in a good way.

The kids will stay with their respective distance schools.  The whole point of switching to the distance learning in German was to avoid the many school changes.  It also seems that the schooling options in Dushanbe are limited, so maybe we did something right.  We'll try to get piano and violin lessons, and some sports. 

Tajikistan is unknown, dirt poor, difficult to access, and stunningly beautiful.  This short video gives you a little impression (watch this in HD and fullscreen):

I suppose I should start looking into landscape photography.
But first we have a wedding to attend in the US!  Nothing is ever straight forward with the Muirs.

*Third culture kid

What happened!

Goodness me, I have a blog. 

I know.  I'm sorry.  So much has happened and it turns out I'm not Supermom after all and the day has only 24 hours.  Oh, well.

We left Kosovo in June,  a bit surprisingly (but not really).  We had a fabulous vacation in the US where we ran a 5K in Nashville (all kids ran under 45 minutes!), spent time with friends and relatives galore, and relaxed.  We had a whirlwind day of packing and sending our move from Kosovo to Germany.  We spent six weeks drilling Alan in French and trying to squish our things into our much too little house.  And David got new glasses. We went to Denmark to catch a few days at the beach.  We put the kids into school, Leah had her first day of school complete with giant cone of sweets, and then changed our minds and left for the US.  We're back in Germany for the holidays and because our house sprang a leak in the basement.  And who the hell knows what's coming next because we surely don't.

What a second half of the year, indeed.  I shall catch up with a few images, and then we go on, pretending I never neglected this blog, okay?  Well, then.

Happiness is access to a pool.

Happiness is access to a pool.

Because my kids are water rats.

Because my kids are water rats.

Elisa and Brian competing over who gets to be the coolest cousin.  Not sure who won but they both outdid themselves!

Elisa and Brian competing over who gets to be the coolest cousin.  Not sure who won but they both outdid themselves!

Franklin, TN

Franklin, TN

We did it!

We did it!

And all the kids got medals.

And all the kids got medals.

AND Auntie Pam has a pool.  Never wanting to leave again, ever!

AND Auntie Pam has a pool.  Never wanting to leave again, ever!

Adventure Science Museum, Nashville

Adventure Science Museum, Nashville

Walking in Bethesda, MD

Walking in Bethesda, MD

Packing up in Kosovo

Packing up in Kosovo

Beautiful Denmark

Beautiful Denmark

First day of school -- with cowboy boots!

First day of school -- with cowboy boots!

Halloween in Bethesda

Halloween in Bethesda

S'mores in Florida!

S'mores in Florida!

More pool time in Florida

More pool time in Florida

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays!

Kids on the Run

I really love the Girls on the Run program and I so wished we had something similar here in Kosovo.  Even a simple running group for kids would be wonderful. -- I know Girls on the Run is more than that but I'm not greedy.  And no, even though they call themselves "Girls on the Run International", they are not, in fact, international.  I asked.  They did say that I could create my own chapter but they want $7,500 as an initial investment.  I can think of a lot of things I could buy for this country for $7,500. 

I really wanted my kids to run, though.

Alan has been having a rough time with his health this year.  First his tonsillectomy, complete with two (minor) bleeding incidents, then the nasty pneumonia. It turned out that for the most part, the hospital didn't have NaCl to give the IV antibiotics with, so they used glucose.  I don't know whether that's standard practice but let me tell you, if you get half a liter of glucose for three weeks straight, it wreaks havoc on your body, and that's not only your weight.  Alan's fitness was non-existent at the end of the treatment.  He'd gained weight, and was exhausted all that time.

We started slowly by taking Alan on walks - the first one tired him so much, I freaked.  It was uncanny to see my boy, who could walk and bike for miles and miles, completely out of breath after an easy walk of one kilometer.  A few minutes on the trampoline left him completely winded with chest pain.  More maternal freakage.  Regular walk with his Dad after dinner every evening started to have a positive effect.  But that got me thinking...

Did you know that regular exercise is good for ADHD kids? It calms them and makes them more focused.  Alan used to get lots of exercise biking but we couldn't bring our bikes and around here it's not really a good place to go biking by yourself.  But would Alan even want to run?  For years, I had been dropping hints about my godchild Allison who's doing the Girls on the Run program.  My boys were never interested.  Their Dad even ran with Allison as her buddy on one of the runs.  No interest from my kids. Clearly, it was not going to happen on its own.

So I decided to bribe them.  I started with my oldest.  I chose a ridiculous bribe, really, and instantly regretted it (an iPod Touch! Eeek!  What was I thinking!??) but Alan showed immediate interest.  He's been wanting one for a long time now.   I suggested using the C25K program (Couch to 5K for those uninitiated) on my iPhone. You start with a 5 minutes warm up, then alternate jogging and walking (60/90sec) for a total of 20 minutes, and another 5 minutes of cool down.  I had no idea whether that was a good idea but you know?  I decided to try.

Alan and I did our first run on Saturday. It was surprisingly good - I didn't think he could do it but he did it just fine.  Then, yesterday, Leah really wanted to join in.  I was dubious - I didn't want to slow down for her, and I really wanted to focus on Alan.  I thought she was too young, too slow, too fragile. Hah. She ran like there was no tomorrow.  No complaints, no slowing down, no nothing.  She slipped once in the horrid mud that covers everything right now, but bounced back up and kept running.  Why was I surprised?  After all, she basically learned to walk on a trampoline and has been jumping for years now.  That girl is pure muscle and strength. Silly mommy.

Alan was pleased to notice that we ran a lot further (well, 500m further) than on Saturday before we turned around at the 15-minute mark.  I confess, I was pleased as well.  Mind you, we're not going fast at all.  Our run speed is about 9km/hr, so that's just a fast walk, really.  The aim is to be able to run for half an hour, though, not to finish a 5K as quickly as possible.  Endurance is the name of the game (also for me!  In particular for me!). Speed we can do later.

After the run yesterday, I finally looked up 5K training for kids (I don't actually count Alan as a kid anymore) and it suggested a 1 minute jog/5 minute walk for kids.  Jacob, who does not like walking or running, and who does not have the body-built of a runner, agreed to try this with his dad.  Right before, he almost opted out (he hates competing with a vengeance - does. not. like. it. at. all.)  That's why I thought it would be good for him to be alone with his Dad but then he complained he would be so lonely without his siblings.  I finally just pushed him out of the door.  Doug was very pleased to report that it was not a problem at all for Jacob and that both of them actually enjoyed this time together.  Jacob even reported it was fun because they "could talk all the time!"  Whatever it takes, my kid.   After they got back, David finally agreed to run as well.  The last pin to fall over, so to say.

So now we're all training for a 5K!  All that's left is to find a run somewhere - best in the US because in Germany, there are very few open races -- mostly, you have to be a member of an athletic club to run in a race.  We actually found a color run (not an original Color Run, though) close to Nashville, TN, when we are in the area in June.  We are waiting another week to see how we're doing, and then we'll sign up for that run.  It's a walk/run 5K for people from 2 to 100, basically, so even if the kids can't entirely run the 5,000 meters, they can certainly finish it and I hope it will be a great experience for them.   I doubt there will be cows, though...

Look, cows!

Look, cows!

Run, girl, run!

Run, girl, run!



Easter Sunday Walk

A Sunday walk after a week of snow and then rain - it was very wet.  The kids had fun jumping into the puddles - well, two of them, anyway.  The other two...  those two were grumpy.  One was really grumpy and the other one was faking, though.  That latter one also thought he was too grown up to do puddle jumping.  Me, I made a mental note to bring my wellies the next time I'm in Germany. 


Today, in honor of a little boy who still had his appendix in 2007, I give you my cutest nephew.  (I can say that because his brother can't read yet and my other nephew doesn't read this blog. I have of course, nothing but totally awesome and super cute nephews.)

Get well soon!

Not us, this time.  My nephew had his appendix removed last night.  We're wishing him all the best and a speedy recovery!  Werd schnell gesund, mein Hase!  Wir denken ganz fest an dich und drücken dich aus der Ferne.  Leah hat die Bilder gemalt, und vor allem mit ganz vielen Herzen verziert, weil sie dich so lieb hat.  Gruß und Kuss aus dem Kosovo!

Shkup - Скопје - Skopje

     So we went to Skopje for our Saturday outing.  Skopje, or "Shkup" in Albanian, is about 70 km south of Pristina.  Those 70 km translate into about 2 hours of driving, including a normal border crossing time of about 15 minutes.  The road is not good and is steadily getting worse.  The reason for this is that Kosovo is building a spanking new highway to Skopje, so why do any repairs to the current two-lane road?  That would be wasted money, no?  Additionally, it's about half pure urban sprawl which is highly unattractive and reaches almost to Ferizai, and then it's a scenic but slightly scary twisty road through the mountains.  Down, down, down it goes from the plateau where Pristina sits to the southernly balmy climate of Macedonia.  It's usually about 5C warmer in Skopje than in Pristina, a constant source of envy among Expats.

     We spent the morning in the bookshops and toy stores to redeem various owed presents and books, and then we just strolled though the old town.  There is a pedestrian strip that connects the Mall with Alexander Square and the early spring weather had drawn out virtually every single inhabitant of the city and tourists all the same.  It was crowded, the outside cafes burst at the seams, and everybody seemed just happy to soak up some sunshine. 

     On Alexander Square, we ran into someone from the Macedonian Astronomical Society who offered peaks at sunspots through his telescope.  How could we resist? We all took a peek and it was really cool.  Sunspots are cool.  (Oh, bad pun.  Ouch.)


We crossed the Old Stone Bridge and I suggested a walk through the old quarter.  Doug wasn't so sure but he's always willing to walk.  As we got there, he was blown away by the difference that 12 years made - you read about it on his blog.  I'll just supply the photos to his story!

(Click on the thumbnails to open up the large gallery.)

Happy Pie Day! Happy Birthday!

Doug is going to be half a century old tomorrow.  Or, as David said, he's really only halfway to 100.  A good way to see it.  We are going to celebrate tomorrow and on Saturday, we'll go to Skopje and blow some money on books.  Because that's how we roll.  We made him a 40-minute slideshow with pictures from his life.  Here's a very, very short excerpt.  If you want to see the whole thing - well, why don't you just come visit us?  My husband would like that.

Happy Birthday, love. And many, many, many more, please.

Throwback Thursday

Me at age 13 or so

Me at age 13 or so

This is going way back much further than I'm going to admit publicly.  Let's say, it's firmly back in the last century.
We had this really nice backyard in Istanbul, full of cherry, mulberry, and fig trees.  It had two levels and the upper level was deemed the "kids' garden".  In the summer, we often got our tent up and I spent all afternoon reading in there.  Happy memories.

Btw, this was a scheduled post that was supposed to go up on Thursday but it didn't.  Also, I have no idea whether my posts sink or swim on Facebook since I'm off for Lent.  These blog articles get shared on FB automatically.  Please comment here, if you want me to see it!  (Is anybody reading this? Bueller? Hello?)

How expats shop

     This is how Expats shop.

     We usually have to peruse multiple shops, not being able to get everything in one stop.  Oh, a Giant or a Safeway would be so nice! (Or, she said confusedly, a Whole Foods!  A Trader Joe's!)  Actually, the other night I had a dream that a REWE (our local supermarket in Fladungen) had opened up in Priština - and it carried bacon and taco chips.  My husband pointed out that other people have dreams full of symbolism and hidden meanings.  What can I say, I'm a straight-forward girl.

     So, you are going to the shops, as the British say.  You may have a shopping list but that's mostly just a guideline.  You never know what you will get and what will have mysteriously disappeared overnight.  We used to buy a lot of Müller brand yogurt from Germany.  Then, suddenly, there are no more Müller yogurts at any of the supermarkets in town, as if the company had suddenly decided to boycott the entire country.  Odd, but normal in a frustrating way.  Also a reason why meal plans don't work here.

     So you enter the supermarket and then you scan the shelves.  Into your basket you put the things you always buy and that are always there - pasta, tomatoes, plain yogurt, milk.   But you always, always, keep your eyes open for those elusive things that pop up only sometimes.  It's a bit like playing the lottery.  Most of the times, you lose.  But sometimes, you score big.  Today, I stopped at a supermarket on the way home from bringing Alan to his first day of school.  I had really only planned to pick up bread and cheese.  But then, glowing in the shelves of the health section, I spotted these:


     Maple syrup!  And in the dairy section: Grano Padano cheese hunks!  My kids love them and they are such an easy treat in the lunchboxes.  But you don't get them all the time - only very occasionally.  And maple syrup?  This is the first time since we arrived that I saw maple syrup in a store.  There were six bottles.  I bought them all.  This is what you do when you see something you like: you buy every single item there is.  Because you might never, ever, see maple syrup again in Kosovo.  Or, there might be a sudden influx and you'll see it everywhere.  But the point is, you don't know,  and those six bottles will be gone when you come the next time.  So, not to take chances, you clear the shelf.  I also found two packages of instant oatmeal that Doug likes to eat.  Again, first time that I've seen this.  Both the maple syrup and the oatmeal are from a Macedonian organic company, so there is a chance that there might be a steady supply now - but then, they might just close the border again like a few months ago, and then no more maple syrup! 

     Anyway.  That's how we shop.  When we see something we like, we buy it all.  We're all hoarders.  You should see my pantry. 

     Or on second thought, better not. 

Prizren and Bresovica

     On a whim, we decided to go to Prizren yesterday.  It was a four-day-weekend for all those who only had kids in ILG.  Most of our friends had taken off to go skiing in Bulgaria but 1. We don't ski (can you imagine another sport as prohibitively expensive with four kids?  Scuba diving, maybe), and 2. We only had three days and Alan has still not quite recuperated yet.  So there was no weekend hike and instead of hiking by ourselves, I suggested we'd go to Prizren. 

     Which we did. 

     And it was a good idea. 

     The road to Prizren is one of the easiest trips to make - there is a super-new, wide, almost completely empty motorway that leads from Pristina to the border with Albania which skirts Prizren.  You probably don't know much about the geography of Kosovo, so here's a quick map:

     Kosovo is a small country and it took us about an hour to get there.  Mind you, that includes crossing the entirety of Pristina because we live on the east edge of town.  Once you're on the motorway, you're in Prizren in half an hour. 

     Prizren sits right on the Northern slopes of the Sharr Mountains. As you can see from the map above, Kosovo is basically a plateau surrounded by mountains.  The Sharr mountains to the South divide Kosovo from Macedonia.  Don't mistake those for just some hills - those are some serious mountains.  Up next to Peja (or Pec in Serbian) are the Accursed Mountains and boy, are they ever accursed.  The Kopaonik mountains make it hard to get out in the North.  The eastern edge is described as "hilly" but you know, those are hills on steroids.

    Anyway.  The Sharr mountains are beautiful and very steep.  But first, we went to Prizren.  It's an old, old town with a population of about 180,000 and mostly Albanian after some thorough ethnic cleansing in the war.  It's a sad story, like all war stories.  Look it up on your own risk, if you are interested.

    We parked on the outskirts of the center, having been warned by our guidebook that parking is notoriously difficult in the center - and that is very true.  The roads are narrow and winding and Prizenris, like all Kosovars, are very creative parkers so that there is little room to navigate, let alone find a parking space.  So we have to walk a kilometer to the Old Town but heh.  Apart from kids aghast ("What? We have to walk!!??"), it was fine.

     The city center is old Ottoman and very beautiful.  I saw a lot of things that instantly reminded me of Turkey, like this shoe polisher's box, and the nut and seeds stores everywhere.


     We just walked around with not much in mind.  We usually take it slow when we are in a town for the first time and we know we will come back.  Just drifting through the narrow roads and the pedestrian area called Shadervan was lovely.  We had a little snack, and looked at the cathedral (not open to the public) and the Sinan Pasha Mosque only steps away, had some lovely coffee and then gave in the the kids' demands to walk up to the Kaljaja, the fortress up on the hill.

     That walk up there is a serious climb.  Alan was completely exhausted afterwards but he did want to go and I think it was good for him.  No chest pain was also good!  Only a week before, a short walk had left him completely winded and with chest pain.  So, that's good.

     The kids basically ran up the hill.  They were so excited about a fortress! that they forgot they hated walking uphill.  Or so we are told every Saturday on our hikes.  Anyway, up the hill we went to the fortress.  There isn't too much left of it, just some walls, and some arches, but it's a very big areal faintly reminiscent of Masada. It surely has the greatest views of Prizren you can wish for!

From left to right: Church of St. George, Sinan Pasha Mosque, Old Stone Bridge

From left to right: Church of St. George, Sinan Pasha Mosque, Old Stone Bridge

Way up high

Way up high



Looking out over Prizren

Looking out over Prizren

Destroyed Serbian houses all along the way...

Destroyed Serbian houses all along the way...

... and here

... and here

Sinan Pasha

Sinan Pasha

Almost back down - there is a nice art gallery in that house with the many flags. 

Almost back down - there is a nice art gallery in that house with the many flags. 



     And then we had ice cream for dessert and started back homewards.  Alan was very tired and we can always come back for more.  It was also a cold, blustery day, despite the many plum blossoms we spotted everywhere. 

     We decided to take the long way home and take the mountain route through Bresovica, a popular Serbian ski resort.  We were a bit surprised to find an intact Serbian village here in those mountains but on second thought, it makes a certain amount of sense.  It's remote and not close to any Albanian villages (think steep mountains, sparse population) and it's also far away from Serbia -- pretty much as far away from Serbia as you can get in Kosovo -- so there is not a danger of being overrun.  So yes, this is a successful re-population effort.  But that makes only one in so very many that have not worked out.  It doesn't matter much too me who was right and who was wrong - ethnic cleansing is always a bad thing, and it invariably robs a country from that vibrant mix of cultures that signifies a healthy society.

     The pass through the mountains was steep and we went above the snow line, deep into winter and heavy fog.  It was a bit touch and go at some spots but then we descended quickly into spring again and were almost home.  I think those mountains must be absolutely spectacular in the spring, so we'll be sure to come back in a month or so. (I was driving, so no pictures of Bresovica and the mountains.  Next time!)

     Kosovo is a very beautiful country.  Come and visit!

The Lung Ward - Part 2

     I can’t really say I woke up - it was more of a “be more awake than before”.  Those examination stretchers are not made for sleeping comfort.  It also got really loud around 6 am. Parents who had stayed up all night with a sick baby, fearfully listening to barking coughs and labored breathing,  had finally packed up their child as dawn approached and brought him to the ER.  They needed my stretcher for another child.  Didn’t need it.  People came in and out. We were very, very hungry.  I needed coffee.  At around 7, I called Doug and asked him to bring something for us on his the way to work.  90 very long minutes later, he arrived with hot coffee and sandwiches.  

     Alan seemed much better this morning.  His fever was completely gone.  He read his book and smiled, like a different child.  I had a fleeting image of a world without antibiotics and then very purposefully pushed this thought out of my mind.  Better not to go there just now.

     We waited.  Waiting gets really long and boring if you don’t exactly know what you are waiting for.  We were told we’d be transferred to the Lung Ward later that day.  People continued to drift in and out.  The night doctor, the nice female one who spoke good English, came and looked in on Alan.  She told us, again, that we’d be transferred to the other ward and that the treatment would have to be continued for quite some time.  “He’s very, very sick”, she added.  But maybe, she suggested, it would be possible to have the treatments in the hospital and go home for the night.

     “He needs good, healthy food”, she said in a way that suggested that good, healthy food was not an option at the hospital.  I asked whether there was any food to be had and she said that in the ER, there is no food. (Well, I guess that is true all over the world, no?)  

     I later found out that there is a kind of on-board sale of food going on three times a day.  A help? Technician? Cook?  Well, a person comes with a trolley full of food three times a day and yells “Food” in the hallways of the wards.  Patients (or their caretakers if they are not ambulatory) go into the hallways and return with food on plates.  There are no bedside tray tables.  There are little dresser/nighttable kind of things but they don’t have a tray and eating is a precarious thing.  I am also not clear on whether the food is free or whether you have to pay for it.  We never bought anything from them, Alan being a very picky eater.  But sometimes, when we came into the hospital in the mornings, it smelled very, very good. (You walk past the kitchens in the basement.)

     At around 9:30, a pretty red-headed nurse popped into the room.  She spoke quite good English, and she told us we’d be going to the Lung Ward now.  I never did find out her name but she has a quick smile, and a very sunny demeanor, and the kids adore her.  She brought us to the Lung Ward.  We had to walk.  In the US and in Germany, you’d get a wheelchair and would not walk on your own.  In Pristina, you walk.  In fact, you walk out of the ER, down the steps, around the corner, up the steps, into the Lung Ward.

     My first impression was… chaotic.  Lots of people, too many.  Rundown equipment,  touching attempts to brighten up the space with colorful stickers and pictures on the walls.  Dreary hallways, grimy floors, old beds with sagging mattresses and altogether too many people on the beds and in the rooms.  Three, four beds to a room.  There were only six rooms, and I would later find out why: when USAID remodeled the ER, they re-purposed three rooms from the Lung Ward for the ER to make it bigger and more impressive.  They pulled up a wall to separate the two wards - this way, (official) visitors to the ER would only see the shiny new remodeled rooms and would not wander accidentally into the run-down, old, tired Lung Ward.  That’s why you have to leave the ER physically to get to the Lung Ward, although they are right next to each other in the same building.

     The nice nurse ran off to get sheets and pillow case.  We had not known that it's better to bring your own blankets, pillows, and sheets.  I very determinedly did not think about what that meant. The first sheet she brought was ripped, so she had to get another one.  All the while, Alan was very, very quiet.  He took it all in, and the contrast to a German hospital must have been all the starker because he just had been in a German hospital with his tonsillectomy.  The little dresser next to his table was obviously once donated from some office.  It was old, dirty with the kind of grime that the years bring with them and which you can't ever get off again.  Let's call it patina. The room was full of people - there were two sick babies, their moms, and some visitors, the nurse, us - all in all maybe ten people.  It was crowded and too close for my German space-conscious self, but the Kosovar moms immediately started talking to us and their warm smiles made us feel awkward and judgmental.  It was all they had, and they shared it.  Who were we to judge?


     Alan, my Alan.  He looked to me and whispered, "I wonder what that little girl has.  She looks awfully sick!"  That's Alan in a nutshell for you.

     The nurse came back with a doctor, and then another doctor, and yet another one.  They listened to Alan's chest, looked at his x-ray, listened to his chest some more.  They asked a lot of questions about his birth weight, about his development, his height, weight, and how he got sick.  And, oddly, whether I'd had "an abortion before this child".  Whatever that is important for, I do not know.


     "He is very, very sick", they said to me.  I would hear this so many more times, I wondered whether we came across as negligent or careless.

     "He needs treatment", the doctor said. For how long? "Well, we'll see.  One day, and then we see."  It turned out that this young male doctor was nice, competent, and not very good in English. Then the doctor tore off a piece of paper, scribbled something down, and gave it to me. "You go to pharmacy", he said. "Buy this, bring back here."

     Yes, I was a bit bemused.  Surely, they had medication at the hospital, no?  No, it turns out, they had not.  Any kind of medication has to be bought by the patient (or his/her ambulatory caregivers).  So I went and looked for a pharmacy and found one and bought Alan's meds - antibiotics for IVs.  I brought them back and they hooked him up, and I held his hand for a bit.


     At about 1 pm, I had to leave him alone - Leah was about to come home from school, and I had to make and bring back food for Alan, supervise homework, and get dinner on the way.  Alan was getting really hungry, having eaten all the sandwiches and apple slices and nuts that his Dad had brought for him. 

     We returned later that day, all of us, to bring tomato soup, strawberries with milk, water, juice, and lots of unhealthy comfort food for him.  I did not stay overnight with him - the bed was too small for that, and we both would not have slept well at all.

     So our days passed between Alan in the hospital and me ferrying back and forth, bringing food and entertainment, siblings and books.  Alan was remarkably good about all of this.  Much better than I might have been.

     After three days, they did release him - not officially, no.  Officially, he was still in the hospital but in reality we went there in the mornings to get his treatment - antibiotics and steroids now - and then we returned back home.  Every day was a bit better.  He was still sick, no doubt about that.  He still had dark circles under his eyes but he was so much better than he was.  The treatment, no matter that it was administered in a dire setting, was definitely helping.

     Alan, in the meantime, made sure that everybody fell in love with him.  The nurses adored him anyway, and the moms fell for him because he walked around in the rooms, distributing rainbow loom bands to toddlers who were bored out of their mind, or were poked by needles, or were just plain miserable with sickness.  Every single one of those kids perked up when they got a bright, flexible rainbow loom band as a gift from Alan, who spent his afternoons making them.  He was forever distributing cheer in these rooms, and was loved for it.


     One really bad thing were his veins.  Oh, why do have our kids to inherit our worst features?  Those bad veins that are hard to find, even harder to poke, and which simply shut down after a day or two?  Poor kid, he got poked so many times, he looked like a needle cushion in the end.  Every day we returned for the treatment - sometimes, we had a little exam room to ourselves, most of the time we were unceremoniously packed onto the bed of some other small patient.  This was both extremely upsetting and very charming - everybody shared.  You have no bed, you lie in mine.  Nobody would ever do that in Germany.

     It took us 15 days of daily treatments.  They took a second x-ray after ten days but while markedly improved, the pneumonia was still there.  So we had another five days of IVs, and today, we were put on oral antibiotics for another five days.  Then, he should be clear.

     He's still weak, and not very resilient.  After six weeks of hospitals and recuperation, his body is not used to activity anymore.  A short walk on the weekend exhausted him to the point of tears. We will have to take it very slowly.

     Can we recommend the QKUK Klinkika e Pediatrisë?

     It's not, as one of the nurses told us again and again, an American hospital.  The standards are very low when it comes to comfort, modern appliances, and doodads. There are no electric beds that you can adjust to your liking.  There aren't even bed-rails for the kids. There are no call buttons for the nurses. Or phones on the nighttables. Or TVs on the walls.  Only some rooms are equipped with oxygen lines, in others, you'll just get hooked up to a giant oxygen tank that they cart in for you. On our second to last day, they ran out of IV tubing and we had to go to the pharmacy and get some.

     Was I appalled by the structural conditions? Yes.  Was I shocked that multiple people shared a bed sometimes? Yes. Was I really, really desperate when we arrived to dark, crumbling buildings and is the parking situation abominable? Absolutely. Do you have to walk across the entire hospital grounds to get an x-ray because the radiology is in an entirely different building? In the rain, and in the cold, with peumonia? Yes, you do.

     But the nurses are fantastic - caring and competent and cheerful.  They took care of Alan, and fussed over him, and drew little hearts on the tape when they had to poke him oh so many times to get a needle in.  One nurse told me that when she came back from a 3-day-break, her first question to her colleagues was how Alan was doing.  They told us over and over again that we were "a very good family" and oddly enough, that comforted me.  They told us stories, about how those beds have not been exchanged in the past 25 years.  How one nurse's son plays basketball for Turkey in Istanbul at age 15, and how she misses him so very much.  And they apologized over and over again for the condition their ward was in. 

     The doctors really know their stuff.  They did (correctly) conclude that Alan's pneumonia was a hospital acquired aspiration pneumonia stemming from his previous surgery.  Right there on the first day, they asked me whether he had aspired anything.  It took a while (between the language barrier and my missing medical knowledge) to figure out that yes, he did, probably, during surgery.  They implemented a regime of treatments that healed my kid and got him up on his legs and smiling within a very short time period.  We owe a huge thanks in particular to Dr. Hasani who was our primary doctor, who speaks very good English, and who did everything right.

    I would not want to go back in a hurry.  And yes, I would prefer a more modern hospital and doctors in my own language.  But I would know that in an emergency, we would not be alone and we would be taken good care of.  And that's a good thing to know.

Bye, bye, QKUK!

Bye, bye, QKUK!

The Lung Ward - Part 1

When we stepped off the plane last Thursday, we didn't think of anything bad.  The sun shone brightly, we got through immigration and customs in a breeze, and Doug had brought chocolate and water to the airport.  We were finally all back together again.  It was all good.

Two hours later, Alan complained of a splitting headache.  When I touched him, he felt burning hot.  I took his temperature - it was a shocking 40.1 C (104F).  I gave him some ibuprofen and sent him to bed.  Uncharacteristically, he fell asleep and slept until Doug came home from work, briefly woke, drank a cup of water, and went back to sleep.  Whenever I checked on him, he was asleep, although he kept claiming that he couldn't ever really sleep, he just dozed.  Well, then he dozed a lot.  The fever kept coming and going and it was usually so high that I totally misjudged that he had a continuous fever, because the low grade fever episodes were so cool compared to the really hot epsiodes.  Friday went by in a blur, then it was the weekend.  There was other stuff going on - mold in Alan's closet, the heating had stopped altogether, I had repairmen in and out all the time, and the landlady on the phone.  I had the impression he was getting a bit better and even entertained the thought of sending him to school on Tuesday - Monday was a holiday.

But I noticed his breathing was fast and shallow, and that his pulse was very high.  More ibuprofen.  I thought it was the fever. Kids get sick, right? But something was off.  I tend not to trust my intuition but maybe I should.  It was Sunday, I think, when I said to Doug, "His symptoms are congruent with pneumonia." 
"But he doesn't cough at all!"
"He coughs a bit, he's been coughing for a while now.  And he's got diarrhea, fast breathing, high fever, headaches, the works."
"I can't imagine that.  Shouldn't he be sicker with pneumonia?"
"I know.  It's probably just a virus he got from that awful woman who coughed on us on the transfer bus at the airport."

But on Monday, I finally called our pediatrician.  It just didn't seem right.  The doctor didn't have time that day, and they gave me an appointment the next day, Tuesday, at 3 pm.  Tuesday morning had Alan perked up a bit.  I even sat him down to do some school work.  He wasn't particularly good at it.

So we went to the American Clinic at 3 pm, had to wait a bit, then the doctor came out, saw us sitting in front of his room, touched Alan, and turned to me and said sharply, "He has a fever!"

"Why, yes, that's why we are here.  But I don't think he's got a fever now, no?"
It was that thing about the very high fevers, and the low-grade fevers.  Alan had a temperature of 38.9 but it seemed cool to me, compared to the almost 41 degrees the fever would spike to sometimes.

The doctor turned to Alan, looked into his throat, and immediately sent us downstairs to the ER, ordering blood tests and urine tests as we went.  We never saw his examination room, it was very fast.  This was the moment it occurred to me that Alan might have more than just a nasty virus he caught on the plane.  Maybe, some little voice nagged in the back of my brain, maybe he does have pneumonia.

Downstairs, they drew blood and sampled urine, and then the doctor listened to his lungs.  He ordered an X-ray.  "Your son is very, very sick."  Six little words you never want to hear from anybody, especially not from a doctor.  Let me add here that Dr. Hasani may sometimes appear rather brusk to parents - but I believe it's because he loves kids and cares about them, and seeing them in pain distresses him.  He was angry at me for not coming in sooner (uh, no appointments?), and I was scared.  The X-ray done, he ordered a round of IV broad-spectrum antibiotics for Alan.  They needed to start shooting at whatever this was, he said to me.  He was going to see us back upstairs after the IV was done, to look at the X-ray.  "It's really bad," he said.   "What is it," I asked and knew the answer before he even said it, "Pneumonia."

Major parent fail.

I have to add that Alan himself seemed more annoyed than anything, and that kept me from falling apart:


"It's very, very bad," the doctor told us back upstairs in his room and showed us the X-ray. Right upper lobe pneumonia, and the rest of the lungs were already under way as well.   He told us to go to the University Hospital, to the Children's Clinic.  Only they were equipped to deal with this kind of sickness. 

I didn't question his advice.  Multiple times he told me, "Go there tonight, don't even think of going tomorrow, this cannot be treated at home!"  So we went there, with only a brief stop to get Alan something to eat and pack a few things for the hospital.  We were just out of a hospital, right? Alan's tonsillectomy in Germany was only a few weeks ago.  We could handle that, I thought.  At the last moment, I packed some water, and some small snacks.  An apple.  A bag of chips. 

Which was wise.

It was dark when we arrived.  The university hospital of Pristina is located on a big, partially wooded area with several buildings distributed all over the grounds.  It's confusing especially in the dark as it's not well lit at all, and the signs are not well thought out.  I asked someone and they said something about the Gynecological Hospital which made sense.  There was no parking anywhere, lots of honking cars, people crossing the road, narrow lanes cordoned off by traffic cones.  Chaos and confusion, is how it seemed to me.  We parked... somewhere.  Then we walked to the Gynecological building but that was a fail. 


It took a while to find, in the dark, without signs, someone who could point us to the right hospital.  It was tucked away behind an ultramodern building that turned out to be the Kosovo Transfusion Center.  We walked into the wrong door.  The guard pointed us to the right door around the corner. 

The Emergency Center of the Children's Hospital is friendly, clean, open - and comes directly from "the American People".  After some frantic discussion, the doctor explained to us that we really should be in the lung ward (that was the "wrong" door from above).  But the lung ward didn't have any beds tonight, so we were to stay in the ER over night and then be admitted to the lung ward in the morning.  I asked  if we should rather leave and come back in the morning but that was greeted with horror - no, we had to stay and start treatment right away, "Your son is very, very sick."

That's how Alan ended up in the ER, on an exam stretcher, hooked up to an IV all night.   And me, next to him on an identical, and equally uncomfortable stretcher.  The first thing you always get in a German hospital (right after you signed a plethora of agreements and waivers and contracts) is a bottle of water.  There was no water, but truth be told, there was no signing of anything, either.  Since this was the ER, I wasn't surprised that there was no water or meal service.  I was glad of the water I brought, and the apple, and the chips.

The night was long, and loud.  The nurses - my goodness, they were loud.  Albanian is not a language that seems to lend itself to whispering.  The doors swooshed open and closed all night, children wailed and screamed, parents discussed, door banged shut.  And whenever there was a lull in the activity outside, a nurse would rush into the room to check on Alan's IV.


We had a little sink in the room, and there was a toilet in the hall.  It had no lock, and no toilet paper. 

It was a harbinger of things to come.

During the night, I was on the phone and on FB messenger in contact with a new nurse friend in the US and my neurology doctor BFF, with relatives and friends all over the world.  I insisted on a check of Alan's oxygen levels on the advice of the new nurse friend.  I posted the Xray and the blood work to her to check it out.  I watched for signs she told me to watch for.  I was feeling not quite as helpless as I might have without all this awesome help.  Of course, I also got more and more scared, so much so that I made Doug contact our med-evac company to arrange for Alan's evacuation if he didn't get better fast.  His very high protein levels (166, 6 is normal) confused everybody, including the doctors in the ER.  I fretted over the fact that he wasn't hooked up to monitors at all.  I could not sleep.

It was a very scary, confusing, and restless night.

Wet day

I'm single-parenting for the next four weeks.  I have a number of strategies for times like this and one strategy is to get them out of the house and walking every day.  That includes days like today when there is a storm announced and when it was already drizzling a bit when we left the house.  But heh, there is no bad weather, there is only bad clothing, right?

Almost right.

We wanted to hike the path in the Black Moor - it's a favorite of ours, and only ten minutes by car.  When we got there, it was not raining but it was very foggy and dismal.  No matter, we could see enough and off we went.


Alas, the path was closed for "danger of slipping".  Dang it.


Oh, well, then we'd take the other path.  It's not as if the area is lacking for hiking trails.  When we got to the turnoff, it had already started rain a bit.


The planks were slippery, the path was muddy, but the kids were having fun, so we plowed on, quite literally.

Silly girl

Silly girl

Reading all about falcons.  We didn't spot any.

Reading all about falcons.  We didn't spot any.


I took a photo of David when I realized I could hardly see Leah, and I could not see Alan or Jacob who'd walked a bit ahead.  By then, it had started to rain in earnest.  I called them back.  We'd be soaked so badly because the one thing we didn't bring from Pristina were our rain coats. Silly, really.


We turned around, only stopping to look at the dismembered rabbit that lay beside the path.  Leah was very interested...


Then the winds picked up all of a sudden, and Leah got blasted with rain and tiny snowflakes.  I wrapped my scarf around her...

Ugh. Ack. Lens glare!

Ugh. Ack. Lens glare!

Then I had to hide the camera under my coat to protect it from the rain.  We hurried to the little snack place and had hot Bratwurst and coffee (me) and organic lemonade (the kids).   We drove home blasting "What does the fox say", "Jericho", and "Dance Apocalyptic" at full volume.  Now we are sitting by the fire.

We miss Daddy.

Food, real food

A few weeks ago, we noticed that Jacob had started grimacing.  It seemed an involuntary tic, something he could not control and that he wasn't aware of.  I thought he was stressed - his teacher is strict, his class is big (for an international school), he is still catching up with the English spelling.  Plus learning French.  And all of a sudden, Math Minutes - not something up Jacob's alley who is not fast in anything he does. So, stress, right?

We tried getting some calm into the family life and maybe expect a bit less.  It didn't help. He is not having night terrors anymore, at all, which seemed to indicate to me that he was less stressed, not more.  But the tics persisted.  

Now, if you google "face grimacing" you get all sorts of really horrible results.  Chorea and Tourette's are the most popular choices.  But deep inside all those horrible results was one page that suggested a lack of magnesium in the diet can cause tics.  So I feed Jacob bananas and almonds.  And it's gotten better.   And that made me feel really bad.

What else is going on because my kids' nutrition is not as good as it should be?  Alan doesn't like most fruit and vegetables -- that is, he likes quite a few but almost nothing that is in season now.  He loves strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, currants.  Hm.  I guess he just likes berries? He also likes apples and grapes. Not tangerines or oranges.  Not pineapple. Not anything tropical really, not even bananas. He likes raw spinach and pretty much any kind of lettuce as long as it hasn't seen the evilness that is salad dressing.  Which is great! Only, lettuce is kind of rare here, and dark greens even more so.  No chard, no kale, nothing of that sort to be had here. Needless to say, he doesn't dig cabbage, either.

He doesn't look like he's lacking for anything... But this persistent cough that is just not going away?  How much is that due to not getting enough vitamins, minerals, and micro nutrients? I am, by the way, of the persuasion that one should get one's vitamins from food stuffs, not a pill. 

So after I realized that Jacob's grimacing might be a simple lack of magnesium, I thought to myself that I can do better.  Even here in Kosovo where organic is faute de mieux but not certified, where lots of veggies and fruit actually come from Turkey (not organic), where it's kind of hard to find whole wheat pasta and I haven't seen brown rice yet.   Even here, I can do better than I do so far.

So I went back to a food blog I've often perused and taken the occasional recipe from -  100 Days of Real Food. I think it's kind of famous by now but I've been following it for a year or two, since when it was still kind of small.  It's full of great articles on whole foods, recipes, advice, information about the food industry.

Lisa Leake's story is really inspiring.  Three years ago, she decided to cut all processed foods out of her family's diet for 100 days.  They pulled it through, kept it up and three years later, they are experts on the subject and are veritable treasure troves of nutritional advice.  Many of her family's chronic maladies just went away and they feel better (no afternoon slumps!) and are healthier than ever.  Who doesn't want that?

It's kind of hard, though.  Especially when you live in a country that's not First World.

For us, it won't be possible to cut out all processed foods -- we just don't have access to alternatives as much as we would in the US or in Germany -- but we can try to reduce them. I'd be happy with 80%.  Since we cook most of our food from scratch anyway, it shouldn't be too hard or unusual.  We've never allowed the kids much in the way of sodas, and we avoid food coloring because it sets off their ADHD.  Conveniently, Lisa also has a whole section dedicated to school lunches which is great because my kids don't eat their (supplied) school lunches and Alan tends to spend his lunch money on, let's say, less good choices.  

I've always been interested in healthy nutrition.  I read lots by Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, and am just (slowly because it is ever so depressing) reading through "Pandora's Lunchbox" by Melanie Warner.  I'm interested in this subject because really, we are what we eat.  My Mom taught me how to cook, and to cook healthy foods.  We both grow lots of food in our backyards.  There is jelly season, jam season, pickle season, plum cake season, quince season, apple juice (and wine!) season...

The difficulty we face is the lack of access to what we consider wholesome foods here in Kosovo.  There are no whole wheat crackers for sale, or organic nut butters, or Lara bars.  Many of the suggested food items on 100 Days are simply not available. No hummus or fancy seasonings.  Honey is very expensive. There is no maple syrup. I have yet to find coconut oil.  The offerings of vegetables and fruits are extremely seasonal - and yes, this could be a good thing if you like lots of cabbage in winter.  I didn't can any tomatoes because we arrived at the tail end of tomato season.  Right now, there are lots of apples so I make Jacob's beloved applesauce with local (cheap!) apples that just have to be organic - they look exactly like the spotty, misshapen apples out of our backyard.  They sure make a wonderful applesauce!  We have spinach at the moment, so we eat spinach salads with nuts and dried fruit.  But stop - is this organic dried fruit? Not so much. We can't get grass-fed beef but we can get really wonderful organic chicken.  We can get tacos but they are not whole-wheat.  We can't get organic cheese.  Etc, etc.  At least our milk, being European, does not contain growth hormone!  The offerings in the winter will be mostly cabbage and imported fruits and vegetables.

Some of those can be worked around - I can make our own whole wheat tacos.  I can bake whole wheat and rye crackers.  But it all takes a lot of time and there are no shortcuts for when you are sick or just tired of cooking and baking all the time.

Still. We are going to try to cut even more processed foods out of our diet and at least use more whole wheat and make healthy school lunches for the kids.  The whole wheat banana bread that I made today didn't wow me (Doug and I both agreed it needs more honey and maybe some nuts) but the kids who eat banana bread (all but Alan) just snarfed it up.  That counts for success, I think.

Let's see if we can make those whole wheat tacos next...

Something I learned from my mother-in-law

My parents taught -- and still teach -- me a lot. They taught me to fix things - we lived in Turkey for a large part of my childhood and that was long ago in the Dark Ages when circuit breakers were sold refurbished with copper pennies, and we used silk hose as carburetor belts.  Okay, maybe not the silk hose, but the story about the circuit breakers is true.

I learned to cook and to bake from my Mom.  I still call her, often, with questions about recipes and how to make something.  Also, when I put the batteries in wrong (don't judge me, the little image was super-tiny).   Gardening, finding my way in a strange city, traveling, you name it.  They really taught me very much.

My mother-in-law also taught me something important.  I didn't meet her until I was in my thirties and she scared me a little bit at first. My mother-in-law is a formidable woman.  She worked as a successful real estate agent for many, many years, and after her retirement she joined FEMA and flew off to catastrophes and disaster areas to help people a few times a year.  She did this way into her 70s.  She played softball until only a few years ago.  She travel to Russia with her kids in the 80s, before the wall came down.  Just to see how it was there, you know.  She is a feminist and thinks Germany is great because our political head is a woman.  When my daughter turned out fierce and driven and competitive -- I didn't have to look far to see who she got it from.

My mother-in-law doesn't really cook or bake, and she doesn't garden, but she taught me something very valuable:  How not to accept "no" for an answer. 

She never accepts a negative answer from a sales person or anybody, really.  I've seen her get free upgrades to Economy Plus on United for nothing but good words.  Try that one day and see how hard that is -- they usually make you pay though the nose for the privilege of a few more centimeters of legroom.  She gets discounts on memberships she doesn't even have - and the rental agent knew that.  She always tries to get a bargain but it's never embarrassing, and that's an art.  I don't think she pays full price for a lot of things.

How does she do it?   

Well, she is always polite.  She'll tell a little joke maybe, or a personal story.  She treats the person behind that desk (or on the phone) with respect, and that goes miles.  It seems people rarely treat customer service with respect and courtesy.  It really does pay off when you do.   She switches on the charm and yeah, I think David has that from her.  She's firm, and insisting, but never annoyingly so.

I watched her for years, and listened, and learned.  I apply her tricks, I adjusted them to, um, my style, and it very often works.  Not always, you know.  But in many cases, this has saved me lots of money and hassle. 

That's how I got a Kingfisher shelf on a plane to Bucharest, and a Rio bookshelf on a plane to Armenia.  (The people at Rio, who I had to -- gently -- harass into sending the shelf parts super quickly, still remember that story - "Oh, you are the woman who took our shelf on the plane to Yerevan!")   This is how the check-in agent at Lufthansa smilingly accepted a big fat bag as non-oversized and saved me 50 Euros ("presents for my kids - you know, we live in Kosovo and...") this week.  This is how I got the hotel manager to change our rooms without the change fee which was 180 Euros. 

One caveat:  With health insurance agents, you gotta be extra firm, and also a bit threatening.  I think they get whipped if they give you something, even if it's something they owe you. 

So here are my mother-in-law's tricks, slightly modified: 

  1. If you don't have a person in front of you, do call them.  Never use email to complain or ask for something - you need the human touch.
  2. I always pay attention to the name of the person answering the phone and use the name during the conversation. Believe me, they notice that. (I scribble it on a piece of paper because I have a very bad memory for names.) It changes the relationship in a subtle way.
  3. I tell something about myself, usually about how the kids are involved in this.  Four kids usually soften everybody's heart.   Four sick kids, four kids waiting for presents, and so on. I apologize for the trouble but I never grovel.
  4. I'm always friendly and polite.  
  5. I never lie but I do exaggerate a little bit sometimes.
  6. If they can't do anything for me, I never get bitchy -- I thank them and go my way.  It's plain good behavior, and I like to think that it pays off at some future time. 
  7. If they could help me, or even if they were just super nice about not being able to help me, I ask to speak to their supervisor and say a few kind words about them. That's just fair play.

That's basically it.  Take down their name and number if it's something you need to follow up on.  These days, with call centers everywhere, chances are slight that you'll deal with the same person.  But if you ask for someone they know, the new customer service person you are dealing with is automatically going to treat you more courteously.  Use the same tactic with everybody, even with the nasty (US) immigration officer.  Stay calm and friendly and non-intimidated with the latter.  It will surprise them. Also, most immigration officers don't like jokes.  But they do like it when you blame your American lawyer husband for everything and get annoyed at *him*, not them -- sorry, husband! But that does actually work really well.  I realize the whole "how to get through US immigration without too much hassle" maybe deserves its own post one day.

So, thank you, M, for this valuable life skill.  It has served me well and I will pass it on to my kids. And my readers.