Albania Day Six

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Dr. Ted at Emanuel Church, explaining how depression is a physical problem with the chemistry of the brain. Zef is translating.

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Brayden and Spencer playing chopsticks. It’s a finger game involving math and strategy.

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Brayden, Natalie, and Spencer in front of the National History Museum. (The boys were only slightly disappointed when they realized we hadn’t said “Natural History Museum”)

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This is how I picture Chris–in deep conversation, holding someone’s hands. People really feel cared for after talking with her.

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Emanuel Church used to have a bakery on it’s lowest floor, and the guys came across the old sign for it.

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This rain damage is on the front wall of the church, just above the pulpit. Not what you want to look at while the pastor is preaching.

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Wait, Jim, did you say this is BETTER than it was when you started???!!! On the back wall you can see the old bakery oven.

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At the meeting last night Dr. Ted talked on depression. It was shocking to hear from the four doctors and one psychologist in the audience that in Albania doctors prescribe only medications like Valium and other depressants for depression. Although Prozac has been prescribed in America since 1988, it is rare here. Even the doctors were asking questions like “Can you still drive if you are taking anti-depressants?” There are only a couple of psychologists in all of Tirana (a city of half a million people), and they wouldn’t take any insurance, nor would people go to them openly because others would assume they were crazy. One woman said “From your description of depression, I think we all have it” and almost every head nodded.

Today it was pouring rain. Jim and Jason worked at the church. There is enough to do to keep expert contractors busy for months, but we only have a week! The guys worked very hard patching damaged areas, fixing standing water issues, getting rid of rooms full of junk, and preparing for the church work days ahead.

Sometimes in Albania there’s just not a lot to do, and you have to fill your time while people are at work. While our husbands labored, Natalie and I and the boys headed to the museum. The boys loved the museum and I was impressed at how much history they knew.

We had coffee with our Albania friends–both doctors, husband and wife. Chris taught at the church on how to take charge of your own education. (Sometimes the professors here don’t show up to class, or don’t care about their students, or just aren’t great at teaching.)  She is so intense that one of the Albanians said “She is like an American, only 100 times as much.” The university students loved her and afterwards had some deep conversations with several individuals.

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Albania Days Four and Five

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Coffee on the pier at Vlora

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Where the Ionian Sea and the Aegean Sea meet.

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Jim admiring the beautiful view in Vlora.

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The promenade in Vlora.

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Marsh on the main street in Berat. On top of the mountain behind me is the castle.

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Marsh, Pastor Clodi, and Jim in Berat. You can see the Ottoman era homes in the background.

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Berat. After an earthquake in the Middle Ages the traditional Albanian homes were replaced by Ottoman-style homes.

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Berat Castle

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Orthodox Church at Berat Castle.

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Jim on the castle wall.

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Jim’s taking of picture of this hill that says “NEVER” in big letters. It used to say “ENVER” (the first name of the Albanian communist dictator), and it was too expensive to remove.

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Inside a different Orthodox church.

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Jim, Chris and I left Tuesday morning at 6 am, intending to go to Berat, where Chris was speaking, and return to the hotel the same evening. Through a series of, um, circumstances, we ended up spending the night in Berat. It was really fun and a bit stressful. I discovered what I would miss most if my suitcase were ever lost and I didn’t have a packed carry on: phone charger, passport, and medication.

Berat is a UNESCO world heritage site–a city that has been continuously occupied since 2400 BC. Whenever we say we’re going to Albania, people either say “Where’s Albania?” (or perhaps “Why Albania?”) OR (if they travel a lot),they say “OH!!!! To see Berat???!!” I’ve wanted to go for seven years, but we aren’t really here to be tourists. So when I heard that Pastor Zef had arranged for us to go and meet with people there, I was excited. On the way there we stopped in Vlora, a beautiful university town where the Aegean Sea meets the Ionian Sea. We had a great time with the InterVarsity staff there. The husband, Julie, came to know Jesus at age 13, after someone had put a gun to his head in front of his dad, threatening to shoot Julie unless Julie’s dad gave money. We always hear hair-curling stories here. They inspire me. Hopefully we encourage them.

We then took a bus on communist roads, through flocks of goats, sheep and wild turkeys, for two and a half hours to Berat. After church, where Chris spoke, we had dinner with the two pastors and their wives–all four are amazing, wonderful, warm, spirit-filled people. (And they loaned us deodorant,  toothbrushes, a razor for Jim, and something for me to sleep in.) We learned so much from them, and I hope we encouraged them half as much as they encouraged us.

Because we didn’t get to see the 13th century castle–the main tourist part of the city-the first day, one pastor and his wife offered to take us in their private car up the mountain and show us around all morning. the next day. The castle area where people still live was filled with many Byzantine churches and mosques, winding narrow cobble streets and ancient (continuously occupied) homes. During World War II Hitler sought a sixth century illuminated manuscript of the gospels, but monks risked their lives to hide it in one of the church’s floorboards, and saved it. I feel really lucky to have been able to see all this history.

Then the pastor took us in his own car to Tirana.We offered multiple times to take the bus. It’s a two and a half hour drive. One way. He is the only pastor of the only church in the city. Even though he is an extremely busy man, he insisted on taking his entire day to drive three Americans he had just met back to their hotel. The people of Albania inspire me and humble me.

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Albania Day Three

The morning started with a nice devotional led by Natalie from John 14 about how God doesn’t leave us as orphans. My heart was touched because I really feel like an orphan–my parents and siblings are all dead. There’s so much sadness about what could have been and the inability to fix what was broken between my brothers and me. Yet I am continually reminded that God is in all this and I am not alone. Slowly He is healing me of the grief.

Natalie and I had a great time over coffee with friends from Emanuel. One is Kelly’s age and told us how the Albanian Civil war in 1997 started in her home town of Vlora. There was shooting in her neighborhood. Once, her dad went out on the balcony and threw a little rock at her window, and she was sure it was a bullet and was so frightened, and then he came in laughing. When I asked how they got food, she said “Oh, every day from 8:00 to 10:00 am they would stop the war so we could go out and buy food.” Very civilized.

Today was the start of university and Dr. Ted was to give a talk about depression. Three hundred students came, which was more than came to the dean’s opening speech, so she closed it down before he started. He said the students realized it was about jealousy and had good conversations with them and was able to tour their medical facilities, so the time wasn’t lost. He will give the same talk at church on another day and perhaps some will come.

Jason and Jim spent the morning surveying the significant damage to the church building–mostly from a leaky roof, standing water seeping into the walls. It’s not a two-day project, and it’s hard to know what jobs to tackle.

I was able to Face Time with Baby Lydia for a few minutes today, and now she stares at the phone and laughs and smiles. She’s really interested in this talking picture. So precious.

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Albania Day 2

This is our fifth trip to Albania and so far it’s been my favorite for a number of reasons. For a long time Jim and I have wanted others to catch our vision, but have not succeeded when we’ve talked to different people about going with us. First of all, people hardly know where Albania is. (North of Greece, east of Italy.) Second, when we explain, people aren’t that interested. (“Drink coffee? Make friends? Encourage people? No, thanks. I’d rather build an orphanage or do something IMPORTANT.”) Two months ago when Zef, the pastor of Emanuel Church in Albania, came to our church several people were inspired by him. Slowly we formed a team. First to commit were Jason, Natalie and their two boys. Jason is an electrical contractor who has flipped houses, so knows some about construction, and Natalie is an expert at home-schooling. These are two skills that Emanuel Church says they really need right now. Their two boys, ages 10 and 8 are an important part of the team. Then Ted volunteered. Dr. Ted is aFamily practice physician in Ventura. Zef has already scheduled him with too many teaching opportunities with medical students in various cities around Albania, plus preaching Wednesday night and Sunday morning. Last, was Christine, a university professor and published author with an expertise in Christian leadership. The flight over was uneventful. It’s taken only seven years to find the perfect routing–14 hours LAX to Istanbul, one hour layover and a one hour flight to Tirana. We arrived at 7pm, unpacked and got eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, and have had very little jet lag. Today was full of wonderful experiences, but as I start writing about it, I think “Did that happen TODAY?” because it seems like we’ve been here so long. Church, coffee after with our good friends, lunch, church in Vaqarr (the village outside Tirana) where Jim preached, watched a football (soccer) game (Emanuel against the Catholic team–they lost) and then crepes with our team. For lunch we invited our Albanian friend Schpendi, saying “OUR TREAT” because he paid our coffee today and has often treated us in the past. We picked a nice restaurant, and Jim arranged with the maitre d’ to get the bill. But as it turns out the maitre d’ is a friend of Schpendi’s and we were out-maneuvered. Schpendi picked up the bill for all 10 of us, while the maitre d’ laughed at the double-cross. I’m happy that Dr. Ted is the perfect travelling companion–always eager to do whatever he is asked to do without complaining. I’m happy that they boys have been angels and a real asset to the trip. I’m happy that Natalie and Jason are already glad they came and are saying things like “The next time we come….” I found I hardly took any pictures. (And some of the ones I did take won’t upload. Grrr.) Most of what I’m excited about now is people and the great talks we’ve had. It’s hard to photograph these things.

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Dr. Ted, Jim, Marsh, Natalie, Jason, Spencer, and Braydon

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Jim preaching in Vaqar with Zef translating.

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J’apprends le Français

I can remember even as a young child wanting to learn French. I studied Spanish in school instead of French because it was more “practical.” I went on to major in Spanish, which turned out to be an excellent career move. I was chosen over other applicants for every job I have ever had because I could speak Spanish. But French was always my longing. Give me a French podcast over a beautiful song any day. In Paris, I’d rather hear French than eat a chocolate croissant–and that’s saying a lot! If I’m at a random foreign museum and a French tour group comes through, I get a rush. J’adore la langue française.

It always seemed too impractical to spend time learning French. I had little kids. I was paying for college. I had a husband and a job. Who had the time and money to run off to France and learn French? In April Jim strongly encouraged me to do it.

“Study French and go live somewhere to be immersed in the language?”

“Yes.”

“For a summer?”

“Well, for perhaps six weeks.”

“But we’d be apart!!!”

“I could come over in the middle!!”

“Sold!”

So, I’m relentlessly studying French in every spare second. I traded in my frequent flier miles for a flight to Paris. Today I read this from Flirting with French:

Not only does the ability to acquire a second language become greatly diminished after adolescence, but the degradation continues linearly. That is, with each year, each decade, that I didn’t get around to learning French, the goalposts have moved further away. What was once a relatively easy fifteen-year field goal has become fifty-seven-nigh going on fifty-eight years, even by NFL standards a long kick.

Great. Why do I have to be so PRACTICAL???? Why couldn’t I have allowed myself to start learning French when it was easier? My only comfort is that learning new things is really good for your brain. Now, where did I hear that? And where are my keys? And what did I come in this room for????

I’ve already made some good progress. My heart leaps with glee when I speak in French and native speakers understand me. They think I’m cute and they are a little patronizing, but still. Language learning is so much easier than it was in the seventies. We couldn’t just look stuff up on the internet–we had to actually use our 15 pound Spanish-English dictionary, and our 501 Spanish Verbs. I refuse to give up!!

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One Heart Stopped. Another heart broken.

My brother died last week. No one is allowed to die anymore. Ever. First of all, it’s so sad. Second of all it forces you to make important and expensive decisions with irrational and upset people at a time when you just want to rest your head on your knees and rock back and forth. I loved my brother. I remember great times of playing board games and card games growing up, riding our bikes to the beach, building forts and having fun. I remember visiting him where he was stationed in Germany, and how handsome he looked in his Air Force uniform. When Kelly was one year old, Don lived with us and played with Kelly and fixed every single thing that broke in our house for an entire year. Good times.

After he married we grew apart. I felt like his wife never asked about me or my kids, but she always had problems that, apparently, my money could solve. If your spouse died, and s/he had a sister that you’d been tormenting for months years over a PERFECTLY CLEAR WILL, would you expect the sister to pay for your spouse’s burial expenses? Or if the sister offered to pay for the memorial service, in addition to the cremation, would you insist on scheduling it on a day her husband couldn’t come? And would you schedule it some place really inconvenient (where neither of you had any relations or ever lived), so that everyone involved had to drive three hours to get there?

I’m pretty sad about being the only one left from my family of origin. I’m sad I can’t make things straight with my brother. The drama with my sister-in-law has made my grief worse. I look forward to the time promised us when there will be no more “death or mourning or crying or pain” where God will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Meanwhile, I’m in the thick of the circle of life. My new granddaughter (born the same month as my brother died) brings me overwhelming joy and has been such a comfort during my grief. This is what gives me joy:

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Google

It’s no secret that if I weren’t already married, I would like to marry Google. I love Google. The angriest I’ve ever been with my work is when they prohibited me from using Chrome because “Google is too innovative.” (Internet Explorer updates at the rate of a glacier and is easier to manage.) I was super excited today to get to tour the Google campus with Jim, Kelly, and Brenna’s friend, Sarah.

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We had lunch in one of their 25 cafes. Coffee and tea in another. Then we visited a juice bar. A smoothie bar. Numerous snack bars. And a dessert bar. Google believes you should never be more than a few steps away from food. See? What’s not to love? The food is legendary, from healthy to otherwise: New York Deli sandwiches, paella, burritos, long salad bars, sushi, free range egg drop soup, pho, reduced gluten rice wafers, big jars of cookies, and more.

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All kinds of drinks, and huge water dispensers with flavored waters, like lemon basil, pineapple, or kumquat.

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They had all kinds of loose tea and water dispensers with different temperatures of water. (Black tea steeps better at a different temp than green tea.) There were at least ten different kinds of milk to put in it. And if you bring your own mug, they will wash it for you. They deliver cookies to your desk at 2 pm every day. And at 1 pm on Fridays.

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I was fascinated by the way Google manipulates makes it easy for their employees to stay at work forever. Employees not only eat meals and snacks there, but can get their haircut, do their laundry, attend exercise or cooking classes (improve your knife work, anyone?), play beach volleyball, miniature golf and tennis, swim in a stationary pool, practice batting, work in a community garden, and get their eyebrows waxed. It felt like a University campus to me…a little city with scattered buildings where almost everyone is young. The Googleplex is so big that workers ask their colleagues for directions. Jim said it felt like visiting a company that decorated for Halloween, but this is their normal fair.

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We saw self-driving cars, and all kinds of fun things like a dinosaur skeleton covered with flamingos. Because, why not?

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It was an incredibly fun afternoon. Thank you SO MUCH, Sarah. 

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