Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Travel Shenanigans, and Spectacular Cyprus!

The One of the reasons I was "destined for Kosovo" (according to my beloved language instructor), is that my birthday falls on the Kosovo Independence Day. Coincidentally, it also falls around our President's Day every year. So this year, I looked early at the calendar, and realized that by taking one day off work, I could get a 5 day weekend, and treat myself to a birthday getaway. That was a no-brainier for me! Although I haven't blogged about it yet (I swear, I will, soon!), I've been really stressed out because I had to move houses and go through a bit of work-related stuff, so this opportunity to get away for a few days was really appealing. Also, I've been in country for 3 1/2 months and haven't been out for so much as an overnight somewhere! I think I was due!

So I booked a trip to see my friends who live in Cyprus. I've been wanting to visit them since they moved there, but I decided to wait until I got to Kosovo to cut some of the cost of the flights. They live in Nicosia, which is on the Greek side. Cyprus is a country that reminds me of Kosovo, in terms of land disputes....the North is a separate country, unrecognized by some, much like the land I now call home. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (whew, that's a mouthful!) is claimed by Turkey, whereas the Southern half of Cyprus has an allegiance with Greece. When I was researching flights, I found that it was much cheaper, and the flights were better, going into TRNC. My friends, who are diplomats, were a bit wary of this, because they wouldn't be able to take their diplomatic-plated car across to pick me up at the airport. But they did some research and we figured out a workaround. And since when do I *not want an adventure?

So I scheduled my flight to land in TRNC, after a short layover in Istanbul. Flights out of Pristina are notoriously few are far between, so although I was leaving rather early in the morning, I was pretty happy with the routing. If all went as planned, I would be in sunny Cyprus by noon on Saturday, quickly on my way to long weekend. But....if you know me, you know nothing ever really goes as planned. So, my 0445 alarm never went off. And the driver who showed up at 0530 called me at 0545, waking me out of a dead sleep. Despite our best efforts, an empty road, and no hesitation on the gas pedal, we arrived at the airport while the plane was boarding. Apparently, that is not early enough to still make the flight. What a load of crap, right? I spent most of Saturday early morning working on re-routing myself, hemorrhaging money, and stressing myself out. I flew to Geneva (check a's way far west of where I needed to go), and then to Istanbul, where I had an 8 hour layover, overnight. So I decided to get a hotel room and sleep a few hours. Which ended up being a *very* few hours, as I was back up at 230 to go back to the airport and to fly to Cyprus. By the time I landed in TRNC, I was truly in a daze of "I don't know where I am, or what day it is, or where the heck I'm going right now". Somehow, I managed to get a taxi to the Ledra Palace border crossing, where I had to cross into the United Nations buffer zone with my suitcase and backpack and start looking for my friend. Of course, he wasn't there. So I crossed into the Republic of Cyprus and sat on a bench outside a cemetery, looking at UN soldiers and abandoned buildings feeling very much like I was back in Kosovo. It was an odd feeling. Long story short, I finally caught up with my friend, and I was free and clear!!

Because it was still early on Sunday, we all went out to breakfast in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. I was really impressed with the city and the availability of Western amenities while still holding true to it's Hellenic roots. Also, I had the most amazing bacon ever. Seriously. Or maybe it's because I now live in a Muslim country and haven't had fatty, thick cut bacon in months. Either way, it was outstanding. After breakfast, we took a drive to the southeastern shores and visited Nissi beach, the sea caves, and Fig Tree Beach. According to my friends, these are some of the most picturesque beaches in all of Cyprus. I have to admit, even though it was overcast and the sky wasn't blue, the water was crystal clear, and turquoise in some places. The water was calm and smooth, and while cold, I could have sat there all day. Being in a landlocked country sucks a little life out of my soul, so being able to walk in the sand and look out across the Mediterranean was therapy I didn't know I needed. At the sea caves, we approached from the top side, and had an unbelievable view of what thousands of years of surf had done to the land below us. K and I even climbed down part of the way to a small landing so we could take a few pictures. We saw some really brave people had climbed all the way to the shore below us, but we didn't feel particularly equipped or prepared for that adventure. Especially not with her husband and 4 kids waiting up top for us! I spoke with a local shop keeper a few days later who told me that 2 men had died there within the past year, fishing out in the surf. For as beautiful and awesome a sight as it was, it's easy to forget how powerful the ocean can be. 

Even an overcast day is beautiful at Nissi Beach.

The next day, the kids had school, but it was President's Day, so C & K had the day off. We decided to go up into the Troodos Mountains with another couple and visit the town of Lefkara. The village is set in a beautifully quaint location, nestled at what seemed to be the top of Cyprus. We were treated to amazing views during the drive up. Lefkara is known for their silver filigree (also, much like Kosovo!)  but perhaps mostly, for their handmade lace. The shop owners claim that Leonardo daVinci shopped there...and who am I to tell them they're wrong? One store was eager to demonstrate the art of lace weaving for us, as a beautiful young Cypriot woman began nimbly weaving a needle into a piece already in progress. Almost while I blinked, another few inches had been completed of accent on top of the lace! The gentleman explained that his great-grandmother owned the shop, and now his mother, his grandmother and his sister worked there. Sadly, I had no interest in buying any of their beautiful lace, but I was fascinated by the stories and products. Have no fear, I found some silver filigree with my name on it! After we explored the town and spoke with more shop owners, we decided to hike up to one of the churches in town. This church, of course, ended up being at the tippy top of the biggest hill around. Along the way, we peered in Cypriot homes, critiqued their landscaping, and picked almonds growing from the trees on the road (one had a big, fat worm in it. Ew). Earlier, C had explained that Cyprus had an interesting loan system, in that the banks weren't big on collecting on said loans. This became apparent several years ago when Cyprus's economy began to fall apart. Most Cypriots have two homes; one in the city, and one at the beach. And it's very easy for them to borrow chunks of money from different banks, because banks continue to loan money, don't do credit checks, and never collect on the loans. They also don't foreclose on people. [Insert picture of my new Cypriot villa here]. C says that since the economy tumbled, the banks are being more selective about who they loan money to, and that they are actually beginning to foreclose on second homes if necessary. We shall see about that! 

The view of Lefkara from the top of our hike, where we found....

....this tiny Orthodox Church, complete with lit candles inside, but not a soul in sight.

I spent most of one day walking around the Old City of Nicosia, shopping the Cypriot side and walking across to the Turkish side, which was a stark contrast to the modern, Western southern side. As soon as I crossed the border, I was met by the sights of typical Turkish markets: hookahs and spices,  evil eyes and Turkish delight. I found a small indoor market that satisfied my need for massive amounts of Turkish products, and wandered some of the old sites for a while before crossing back into the Cypriot side. 

And I've written this whole post without mentioning the kebabs, the shawarma, the hummus, the 4 jars of tahini I brought back in my suitcase.... Needless to say, I can't wait to go back!!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Question of the day (month): Fog or Smog?

Oh my goodness, I can't believe how busy I've been!! Since I got here, it's been Ball, and Visit and Move, Oh My!! I want to write about that, and share some pictures, but I think that can wait. What's really been on my mind lately, and what I really want to share, is the crazy environment I'm living in!

The city of Prishtina sits in kind of a bowl, surrounded by mountains. In the non-winter months, I'm told it's really pretty. I saw some of it when I first arrived, and it was neat seeing the mountains and pretty blue skies. Before I got here, I was told "Don't be discouraged by Prishtina in the winter. It does get better." So with that warning, I mentally armed myself for a gray winter. 

As soon as the nights started getting chilly, I noticed the distinct smell of burning. Every night, it started around 4 pm, at dusk. I could smell it coming in my office windows, like a campfire was burning outside. After about a week, I stopped expecting S'mores. One night after work, I walked down the street to a market to grab a few things for dinner, and I struck by how dirty my glasses were. As I looked at the streetlights, there was such a ring of haze, I was amazed I could see anything at work! Of course, cleaning my glasses had no effect, because it was just all the smoke in the air. People here often burn wood in their homes for heat. But another, major source of smoke is the coal-burning power plant located rather close by. 

This was a clear day recently, and you can see the layer of smog lying below the mountains.

Now that the official winter has set in,  the fog is getting worse and worse. Air travel in and out of the city is affected fairly often and the smog doesn't help. It creates a layer that traps the fog in and some days you can barely see in front of your face! Luckily enough, I walk to work, and can get away with walking almost anywhere I need or want to go. So many days I play the game, "Is this fog, or is this smog?" 

Fog (I think. Maybe both) 



Sfog (Fushë Kosovë is more industrial and is downwind of the power plant; it has some of the worst air in the area). 

For those of you wondering how I'm breathing here, what with my allergies and asthma, I will say that it's not exactly a cakewalk. But I'm on extra meds and the Embassy does provide a ton of air purifiers for the houses. I limit my outside air intake on bad days if I have to and even though I'm really close to the power plant, I'm on top of the hill, so the air is slightly better here than it is down in the middle of town. I smell like smoke a lot and I breathe through my scarf. But it's doable. 

I can't wait to take a trip somewhere, because everyone says that's when you truly realize how foggy and dark it is here. The good news is, while the sky may be dark, peoples' spirits are still high, and everyone is still wonderful. We rally in our collective disdain for the gray sky, and find joy in being together. And the Winter Soltice is tomorrow, so it's all uphill from here!!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Kosovo: per mendimin tim

So I've actually been in Kosovo just over a week, and I think I'm starting to figure things out here. There is still so very much to learn, but each day, I feel less overwhelmed. At least, outside of work!

I wanted to take a few minutes a focus on my initial impressions of the country and of Pristina, the city. I'm currently in Temporary housing, so I'm going to be moving again and I'm living half out of boxes and mostly using things that aren't mine (thanks to the Embassy's welcome kit). But there is an end in sight, even if there's no set date!

So. Kosovo. It's such a hard place to describe. The newest country in Europe,  (independence was declared in 2008, although most countries, and even the UN don't recognize it) Kosovo is still trying to establish its own identity. Kosovo struggled through years of war with Serbia, and the overwhelming majority of its citizens are ethnic Albanians. There is still a lot of strife between the Serbs and Kosovars, which affects pretty much every diplomatic move the U.S. makes. From what I've seen so far, there are more Albanian flags and symbols around then there are Kosovar. I'm not sure if that's because the new generation of Kosovars aren't old enough to be representing yet, or if they, too, will claim their rich Albanian roots. 

During the war with Serbia, the U.S., along with many European countries sided with Kosovo and helped them gain independence. Because of that, there are major international footprint here in Pristina. There are quite a few UN-based organizations here (I'm still trying to figure them all out and what they all do), and quite literally people from all over Europe and the States working to improve the quality of life here in Kosovo, and the greater Balkans. And the Kosovars seem to be taking the leads they're given and running with it. To an extent. There's still a lot of work to be done. I notice a strange dichotomy here: for instance, there's a lovely tree-lines street with restaurants and cafés boasting free wifi where people sit and visit for hours. And in the evenings, it's a strip of bars and nightclubs: truly a place to go out and have some fun (not in a NYC kind of, mind you, but still!). But yet, the city doesn't have any real trash service. Power seems to work *most* of the time. There seems to be no real zoning of any sort; construction starts and stops,when ever, wherever....  In a nutshell, I guess, the infrastructure is still in its infancy. And it has growing pains. In the last few weeks, there have been 3 incidents of tear gas being set off in Parliament. The Minister of Justice was hit in the head the other day with eggs. 

BUT, the people are so nice. And its a safe city. Americans are respected and no one bothers us (in general), so although there are some idiosyncrasies, I could be in much, much worse places. Pristina has pretty much everything I need, it's just going to take a while to find it. I stumbled on almond milk at the fancy grocery store my first weekend here (grocery shopping often involves multiple stops at multiple places). And the bread here is better than I want it to be. It may not be the same as it is at home (ok, almost NONE of it is the same), but that doesn't mean it's not doable. There's going to be quite a learning curve involved, but I think I will really like Pristina!

The long Dragadon steps, leading down into the heart of the city. 

Skenderbeu!! Finally, after seeing this picture in text books for 4 months, I see it in person!!

Typical Kosovar street (they have 2 or 3 names, but none you can ever find, so directions here are always fun!)

Hobbes approves of his temporary home. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015


Wow. I mean, wow, there's a lot of stuff in this apartment. Anyone who knows me knows I like to be prepared (never a Girl Scout, I think I've overcompensated as an adult), so my attempts to purge have been met with a great deal of resistance and stress. But I'm trying.

The last few weeks have been extremely busy; I was in Winchester, VA for training for two weeks (where I acquired EVEN MORE STUFF). But finally, training has come to an end!! And now, I'm on an official countdown to departure. Things are falling into place. Even if I may have a different housing assignment (still up in the air), I don't actually have tickets yet (end of the fiscal year/waiting to avoid the impending shutdown), my social sponsors have been dropping like flies (I haven't even met them yet!!)..... OK, maybe not exactly into place, but close enough for Government work (see what I did there??)

My departure is tentatively set for Oct. 29. But have no fear, somehow, that will get screwed up, too :)

Now I just need to purchase, sort and pack stuff for a house that I haven't seen, buy food and toiletries for a set amount of time, and ship out all the stuff ahead of time that I can (thank goodness I can send all my work stuff ahead!). I'm making arrangements to ship my car out ahead of time and trying to figure out when to get Hobbes in for his pre-flight checkup (yes, that's a thing). So if I'm a little stressed, that's why!

Until next time....  :)

Sunday, August 23, 2015


Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to get wrapped up in the details of things....I think that's part of what makes me a decent investigator! I like to know every little thing as soon as I possibly can. Unfortunately, now that I work for the Big Government, I've had to relinquish a lot of that control and "semper gumby" as I was taught early on. But this transfer, this PCS (or Permanent Change of Station), this whole moving across an ocean, while routine and normal for many people, is new to me. And whoa, scary!!!

But, in theory, it's easy. Right? Someone tells the post I'm going to (Pristina, Kosovo), that I'm coming. At some point in time, the Community Liaison Officer (CLO) reaches out to me and sends me a warm, welcoming email telling me everything I need to know about my new city and country. They assign a social sponsor, someone who will help me get things set up ahead of my arrival so my transition will be as smooth as possible. Luckily, I met my boss during language training, so I've been in contact with him pretty regularly. And at some point, a set group of people called the Housing Board meets to decide which Embassy-leased or -owned residence I will occupy for my 2 year stay. They make the decision based on a few factors; what position in the embassy I will fill (some positions have a lot of social responsibilities and do a lot of entertaining), how big my family is, what pay grade I am, and if there are any requirements as to how close to the embassy I need to be. All the residences in Pristina are furnished, so my big furniture will go into storage, but I can bring whatever I like, whatever will fit into the space.

So here I am, less than two months before I leave, and I haven't heard anything from ANYONE listed above. Except my boss. For anyone else in the Foreign Service, this is par for the course. No big deal. This is just how it works. For Katie, this means I will be living in a cardboard box under a bridge somewhere. And I'll try to bring a second one, because Hobbes likes to take up as much space as possible in boxes. Oh yeah, he's totally coming with me. So when I got my housing assignment this week, I got REALLY excited!!! It even came with pictures!!! So I've been planning things in my head all week.

I will be living in the bottom half of a house; a 2 bedroom apartment, essentially. It's a short walk to the Embassy and I think I'll be pretty much surrounded by other employees. The place looks really cute, and my living space is listed as bigger even than the house I owned in Caroline! The name of the house is Orange because the exterior is, well, orange. Luckily, the interior is not. It is filled with FS-typical Drexel Heritage furniture (a long-fought battle by Foreign Service members due to its outdated and somewhat ugly style, and truthfully, if it's all I ever lived it, I'd hate it too), but for 2 years, I can't really complain. I will be bringing plenty of my own decorations to add my personal touches, for sure!

As I get closer to departure, I will add my address here so you guys acn send me pounds of peanut butter, because I fear that's going to be my ultimate weakness.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

How Time Flies

I never was very good at keeping a diary....

Here I am, another 2 years later, preparing for another move, and deciding, again, to try this blog thing. This time, though, I think I may have more interesting things to write about.

Herein starts my first "real" move. Overseas. To Kosovo. Pristina, to be precise.  The reactions I get vary:

"That's AWESOME!!!"
"Cool!! Where exactly is that?"
"Oooh, you got a good post!!"
"Is that in Africa?"

You can tell who the other Foreign Service people are from the reactions :)   Kosovo is a small land-locked country in East Europe. It also has the distinction of being Europe's newest country, declaring it's independence from Serbia in 2008 (on my birthday, no less!)  It's still an area of dispute, as not many UN member states recognize it, but the relations with the US are extremely good. So I think it will be a great first tour! Plus, geographically, it really can't be beat! Although it's a small country, Kosovo is within a stone's throw to Albania, Croatia, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Italy, Macedonia.... I can't wait to start exploring!

I spent a few months learning Albanian, the prevailing language in Kosovo, and now I have some work-specific training that I will finish the first week of October. Then, a few days of wrapping things up, a quick vacation with Mom, and off I go! Luckily, I will have a furry travel companion with me, so the trip will be anything but boring.

I promise I will try to keep this up during my adventures; this format is easier than Facebook or Instagram, and allows me to babble a bit more. In the meantime, if anyone wants to help me sort, purge and pack, let me know!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Take 2

OK, so much for keeping track of my thoughts. Clearly one thing I lack is long-term discipline. This is why my stints of hitting the gym only last but so long!

So here I am, still in the NYC. My cats are still insane and medically challenged. But I have had some incredible adventures. Last Spring, I spent 75 days touring the US and world with H Rod (or "Hill" as one friend calls her). I got to see some really cool things such as the Great Wall, churches older than you can fathom, and the Midnight Sun above the Arctic Circle, and ate some fantastic food (Chicago pizza, which I'll take any day over NY's, and I developed a taste for reindeer steak).

The one thing I left that temporary tour thinking though, was how easy it is to judge someone when you know virtually nothing about them. And if we all took a minute to walk in someone shoes before we became our typical catty girls (myself included), the world might be a nicer place. When I took my job two years ago, I wasn't particularly impressed with Hillary. I am not a big politics person, but I just thought she wasn't very nice. But after seeing what I've seen for the last few years, I am a convert. I am such a big fan now. She has to be one of the hardest working people in the world. And I'm impressed with her political prowess; she's a politician without acting like a slimy vote-chasing sleaze. I've seen her in all sorts of situations, work and personal, and I really like what she stands for. Personal integrity. Hard work. Fighting for what's right.

I just hope I can remember all these things as I move forward in this crazy career and life.

It's so much easier being a catty girl sometimes! (I'm watching American Idol right now, and Nicki Minaj drives me bonkers!!)