A First Birthday, the Albanian Alps and a Trip to Southern Italy

The first year I taught at Albanian College I had an assistant named Edlira. She was a wonderful translator and assistant in the classroom but also she quickly became a friend. She was helpful as I tried to sort out some of the culture and traditions of her country. Edlira, her husband (Aldo), Randy and I have shared many meals and outings together. For the first time this year Edlira has been promoted to being a full teacher with a class of her own. Since Albanian College is an English immersion school she teaches in English and has her own teaching assistant. Last year Edlira and Aldo welcomed a precious little boy into their family.

We were honored to be invited to Aled’s first birthday celebration in early October. As has become the tradition in America, first birthdays have become bigger and bigger celebrations. However, Aled’s birthday took the first birthday celebration to a whole new level. Edlira has three brothers who are all married with children and live in Florence, Italy. They all traveled to Albania to celebrate as did Edlira’s parents who also live in Florence. Aldo’s married sister and three teenage sons all traveled from Greece to be part of Aled’s first birthday. Aldo’s parents and other relatives traveled from different parts of Albania too. Aled is a well loved little boy!

The proud Mommy with her son. We were completely underdressed for the occasion. I had worn what I would typically wear to a child’s birthday party in the U.S. while all of Aled’s family wore clothing that I would have worn to attend a wedding. Also, it is tradition to wear blue to a boy’s first birthday and pink, purple or white to a girl’s first birthday.
Here are all of Aled’s grandparents. They are all in their early to mid-60’s but none of them are still working. In Albania, it is a law that women cannot work past the age of 60 and men cannot work past the age of 64.
There was even a DJ at the birthday party who played popular and traditional Albanian music for dancing. One of my goals is to learn to Albanian dance more confidently. As you can see, I could not take my eyes off my feet in order to follow along. 🙂 I love how all the family members dance together and everyone from young to old knows how to do the same dances that have been passed down over many generations.
The family then enjoyed a huge meal as a culmination to the birthday clebration.

We loved being part of Aled’s birthday party and meeting so many extended family members. It was an honor to be included!

The following weekend a group of teachers went to the Albanian Alps to a small village called Theth. If you have been reading this blog for awhile, you know that Theth is my favorite palace to visit in Albania. The mountains are stunning and breathing all the fresh, outdoor air is a wonderful change of pace.

We left Tirana at 6:00 in the morning as the sun was rising. Mountains, here we come!
We are about halfway to Theth and the views are becoming more and more fantastic.

The next day we hiked to Grunas Waterfall. We passed a small working farm with a stone house and barn. There was even a coffee shop halfway up the hill to the falls. Two friends are modeling traditional Albanian headwear.

What a fun group of people to travel with! These teachers are from Spain, Egypt, Canada and the States.
On the bus ride out of the mountains look what I saw out the window!

The following week was our nine day October Break. Randy and I rented a car in Albania and headed to southern Italy.

We drove our rental car from Tirana to the Albanian port city of Durres where we boarded an overnight ferry to Bari, Italy.
We are arriving in Bari after a 9 hour trip across the Adriatic Sea. The trip went very quickly since we slept for most of it.

One of the many parts of Italy that I love is all the small and large churches that we randomly come across as we visit various cities.

After getting off the ferry we drove three hours to Naples where we stayed for two nights. The only reason we stayed in Naples was because of its close proximity to Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii. I have loved everywhere we have gone in Italy but Naples is the exception. Someone used the term “gritty” to describe Naples and I think that would be accurate. The city has not yet figured out how to deal with their trash. It was common to see overflowing trash cans, empty beer bottles and unkept streets. Naples is not a city that I would want to return to. That being said, there were aspects of the city we enjoyed.

Naples was founded by the Greeks in 300 BC. We saw Greek ruins at different places throughout the city.
Naples is the birthplace of pizza and it was delicious! We have never eaten so much pizza in our lives.
We took a food tour while in Naples and fried pizza was one of the featured food items.
I came across this beautiful sight on an early morning run. That is Mount Vesuvius in the background.
A typical Italian breakfast for us… The hot drink in the foreground is cocoa, not to be confused with hot chocolate. As in Albania, if you order hot chocolate you will get a hot, thick chocolate pudding. If you want hot chocolate like in the USA, you need to order cocoa.
Street musicians always add so much to the experience of wandering around a city.
A small beautiful city park that shows the trash problem that seems to be everywhere in Naples.
I am always a bit startled when we randomly come across soldiers and military vehicles. We have seen this throughout Europe in our travels over the years.

In 79AD Mount Vesuvius erupted. The rocks and ash from the explosion rained down on Pompeii for almost a full day. Pompeii was a city of 20,000 people. Most people fled the city but there were 2,000 that stayed behind and perished. The 79AD explosion was the most severe. The volcano most recently erupted in 1944 and is expected to erupt again.

Our next stop was Pompeii which was fabulous! If you get the opportunity to visit then you need to go for it. I never realized how big Pompeii is. The city was buried until sometime in the 1700’s when a farmer was trying to dig a well and was unable to because he just kept coming across lots of ash instead of water. Since that time the location has been an active archeological site.

This is graffiti carved on the walls hundreds of year ago.
This is a mold of a person who perished in Pompeii. It was made by pouring plaster into the cavities left by the ash that covered the people.
There are many gorgeous places to stay on the Amalfi Coast. We took a lot of time weighing the options and decided on Salerno because it was significantly less expensive plus it provided easy access (by ferry) to the other scenic cities i.e. Amalfi, Ravello, Positano, Sorrento and Capri.

The beautiful city of Amalfi…

Visiting the Villa Cimbrone Gardens in Ravello was cathartic and breathtaking.

Next we visited Positano which is the most popular town on the Amalfi Coast. It is known for it’s upscale shopping. Here is one of the charming walkways throughout the town. Positano was VERY crowded so I felt happy to get this photo with no tourists in it.
Positano is also known for it’s beaches with crystal clear water.
Interesting art looking over the sea in Positano.
Arriving in Salerno by ferry after a day of touring this beautiful part of Italy.
Morning run on our last day in Salerno.
Another one of the many tunnels we drove through in Sicily.

These are some pictures from our hotel including the deck off our room and the charming place where we ate breakfast each morning.

I loved coming across this school bus picking up children to get them to school. From what I can tell all European school buses are smaller and have a driver and a bus assistant. I know there are many schools in the USA that wish they had bus assistants on all their buses.
We were able to climb part way down into the crater to actually feel the heat that continuously radiates from the volcano. Amazing!

The sunset view on Mount Etna did not disappoint, 85% of what you see coming out of the top of Mount Etna is water vapor. The rest is sulphur, radon and other things that I do not remember.

That is my update for now. Randy is currently back in the States enjoying some deer hunting. I am in the midst of writing extensive reports about each of my students since the end of term one is approaching. I am flying home on December 16th to celebrate the holidays with the whole family. I cannot wait!!! As always, thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I hope you skimmed through lots of it since it is soooooo long this time. Not sure if I will make another post before the holidays so I am wishing you all the best over the upcoming holiday season.

November, 2022

Wow, it is already October!

We have almost completed our 6th week of school. I am always glad when October rolls around because by then most of the students are into the school rhythm and we are past learning all the routines that come with a new school year.

Here are my Grade Two students.

As always, I have enjoyed getting to know my new group of students. They have some excellent academic skills. It has been a while since I have taught second grade so it has been interesting to observe how strong they are in reading, writing and math. Most of these children attended Albanian College last year which means they are all fairly fluent in English. In the past I have always had at least 3 or 4 children who had no English in my class. Several of my current students are trilingual. Some of them speak Arabic or Russian. I have students who were born in Russia, Egypt, Kenya and of course, Albania. One of my Albanian students has lived in Ukraine for most of her life but because of the war, her family moved back to Albania from Kiev last spring. I have never had such an international class. I love the diversity! One more thing, my assistant’s name is Stefi. She is a 22 year old young woman who is just getting started with her career. I am enjoying getting to know her.

If we take a regular picture then we have to allow time for a silly picture too!

Here is an updated picture of the school. The addition on the right was completed in September, 2021.

You may remember from a previous post that the school building was originally built by the communists as a place where they could train their officers. The architecture of the building says communist style. Many of the older buildings in Tirana have this same box like, somewhat dreary look to them. Anyways, the new part of the school is for the Early Years (ages 3-5) Program and the Primary (grades1-5) Years Program. It is a nice addition to the school. Because of all the windows it can get really warm even though there is air conditioning. My classroom is on the third floor. In much of Europe, what Americans would call the third floor, Europeans call the second floor because they call the first floor “zero” or ground floor. Confusing at times but I am getting the hang of it.

Here are two of the other three grade two teachers. Nilda is from Albania and Rawand is originally from Lebanon but is now a Canadian. We make a good team and I am glad to get to work with them.
The children sang happy birthday to me in both English and Albanian. After they finished, one child raised his hand and asked if he could sing happy birthday to me in Russian. Loved it all!!!
We celebrated International Dot Day a couple weeks ago by listening to the the book The Dot by Peter Reynolds. The book has a good message about “making your mark” which led to lots of good discussion.

This is what a week of teaching Grade Two at Albanian College includes:

  • Between 8:00 and 8:30 the children arrive at school and go directly to the canteen where they eat breakfast that is provided by the school.
  • The children have these special classes each week. Each special area class is 45 minutes long.
    • 4x/week Albanian Class; the children who are not native speakers attend a separate class so they can become more proficient in Albanian.
    • 2x/week Music
    • 2x/week Art
    • 2x/week P.E.
  • The children are given 25 minutes for lunch which is provided by the school.
  • There are three 20-25 minute recesses every day. That is one of my favorite parts of Albanian College. It is SO good for the kids to get outside often during the day.
  • The children go to their bus or to parent pick-up at 3:10.
  • Three days a week the children can attend an after school club if they are interested. The clubs dismiss at 4:00.
  • Each teacher has some type of duty everyday. I supervise for 25 minutes during lunch. That means I have a shortened lunch period each day but I am fine with it because then I have more planning time during the rest of the day.
  • There are weekly hour long staff meeting after school in addition to twice weekly grade level meetings during the school day.
  • Each teacher is required to teach a club after school until 4:00 one day a week. I teach the Sudoku Club. 🙂

Now you have been updated about school so far.

The second week of September Derek and his dad, Karl, came to visit us in Tirana. A family member of theirs was married in North Macedonia so they decided to come visit us before heading back to the States. Our families have been friends for more than 30 years. We loved hosting them for a few days!

We stayed overnight at Berat Castle which has been continuously lived in since 400 BC. We love the tranquility and beauty of staying at Kris Guesthouse inside the castle walls.

This is my favorite picture from our trip to Berat, Derek standing on one of the castle walls at sunset.

In 2021 Tirana hosted an International Mural Festival with over 30 artists visiting the city. I just adore coming across various murals as we walk around the city.

Love this message!
This is my favorite mural that I have seen so far. It is titled “A Mother’s Love”.

Well, that is my update for now. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog. I really do enjoy sharing our experiences with you. My first school break is approaching so Randy and I are renting a car to take on a ferry from Albania to Bari, Italy. From there we will drive to the Amalfi Coast and then head south to spend a couple days in Sicily. Can’t wait! Randy heads back to the States at the end of the month to spend time deer hunting. I always dread his departure but then when he is gone I always end up handling it just fine. 🙂

Settling Back into Tirana

We have been back in Tirana for about two weeks now and all is well so far. Our flights from Rochester to Tirana were on time and we even arrived with all of our luggage. Yay! Someone had suggested we put an Air Tag in each of our pieces of checked luggage which we ended up doing. Fortunately, we never needed to rely on the Air Tags but it was comforting to know they were there.

Our son, Josh dropped us off at the Rochester airport early in the morning on August 12th.
Here we go!
A month ago, I had no idea what an Air Tag was but I am learning. The Air Tag is linked to your phone using the Find My App. That way at any time you can see the location of your luggage. Pretty cool!
Our son, David frequently tracks our flights as he did here. It was a 10 hour flight to Istanbul from JFK followed by a two hour flight to Tirana.
The Istanbul Airport had areas called Napzones. They were lovely, quiet zones with outlets where you could relax and recharge at no cost.
We have arrived in Tirana and are headed into the airport. The airport was VERY crowded, more crowded than we had ever seen it. There are 30% more passengers in and out of the airport compared to two years ago. We have heard that the taxes on tickets has been significantly reduced causing the influx.
We flew from Istanbul to Tirana on an airline called Air Albania. Air Albania has leased some airplanes from Ukraine which is one of the planes we flew on.

The school pays for us to stay at a hotel for three nights so we can start to acclimate before moving into our apartment. Look at the yummy lunch we had after checking in.

We were thrilled to reconnect with our friends Edlira and Aldo on one of our first nights back in Tirana. As you can see, they now have a 10 month old son, Aled. He is adorable!!!
I have resumed my Saturday morning runs at Artificial Lake. It cost the equivalent of 40 cents to take a city bus almost anywhere in Tirana. It is a 20 minute bus ride to the lake and then about a four mile run around the lake. You may have read about the dogs in Albania on previous posts. I was amazed to see the dog in the foreground again. He laid in pretty much the same spot back when we were here in 2020.
This is our apartment building which is one of 10 identical buildings in the same complex. Our apartment is on the 6th floor. We loved our apartment last time and we are growing to like our current apartment. It is more dated and did not come as well equipped as our former apartment. The landlord has been working to get us a few more basic items (i.e. toaster, silverware, pots and pans, etc.)
If you look carefully, where the red arrow is pointing, you will see a cord that goes from our apartment balcony to the apartment tower across the plaza from ours. That is our internet connection. We could use a more traditional internet source but our landlord told us he had a friend across the way who had recently started his own internet company. The cord links us to his friend’s internet company and cost the equivalent of $8/month. All of our internet communication goes through a VPN so we feel safe using it. When we told our son, Josh (who is a network engineer) about this setup he thought we were crazy to get the internet this way. After giving him more details he feels okay about it. As we have all said to ourselves, “only in Albania.”
An early morning view from our apartment balcony.
The multiple fruit and vegetable stands continue to be plentiful all along our street.
We continue to buy much of our everyday groceries (milk, eggs, yogurt, etc.) here. It is a very small grocery store by American standards but it is amazing to see how well stocked it is.
Three years ago we could get a dinner of pizza and salad for the two of us for $7, now it costs $10. We are definitely noticing an uptick in prices of about 30% on many things. In talking to people who have lived here a long time this increase in prices has all come about in the last six months. This is somewhat hard on us but VERY hard on the average Albanian who makes a limited amount of money to start with. Depressing…
On a more positive note, Tirana is bursting with construction projects. Everywhere you look, there is a new high rise being built. We have not yet figured out what that means. The buildings are primarily offices and apartments. Are that many people moving to Tirana? Is it growing that fast? Will all these new buildings fill up quickly? The mosque in the picture was being renovated for the two years we were here previously and is now open. I am looking forward to going inside soon.
We just had our pictures taken for our visas.
I took this picture as I headed to school for the first day of teacher induction. The American flag has been added to the sign because last year the school started a new section to the school called the “local pathway” at the primary level and the “American Program” at the secondary school level. From what I understand this was done to boost enrollment and to create a more diverse student population.
Today I finished setting up my classroom, yay! I am excited to meet my students tomorrow. As I said earlier the primary students are now housed in a new part of the school. I LOVE all the natural light in my classroom!

One of our concerns with moving back to Tirana was Covid. The first day of teacher training the director of the school tested positive for Covid. The next day three teachers also tested positive. The whole staff then went to wearing masks throughout the day. Most of the meetings were put on Zoom. At this time, no one else has tested positive and we are hoping for a smooth, healthy start to the school year. Randy and I brought several Covid test kits with us but have not needed to use any of them yet, thank goodness! We have found out that it is fairly simple to get a Covid test in Tirana at no cost at several clinics around the city.

Before we came to Albania a couple weeks ago we were told that many places in Europe were having trouble getting flour because of the war in Ukraine. Because of the flour shortage we heard that there were very limited baked goods available. None of that has been true in Tirana. The baked goods are as plentiful as always. As I said earlier in this post the inflation rate here is very high. I do not know if that is a result of the war or Covid or because inflation is happening worldwide. I am looking forward to having a Ukrainian refugee child in my grade two class this year.

Thanks for reading this blog post. I always think I will be making a short post and then I keep adding more and more. Kudos to you if you are still reading! It will probably be a few weeks before I make another post. The craziness of school starting always takes a lot of time as my school friends know.

Teaching in Albania- Round Two

As many of you know in March, 2020 my teaching in Albania was cut short by Covid. I then returned to teach first grade special education at Dudley School in Fairport, New York. Although I only needed to teach in Fairport for two months in order to retire, I ended up teaching for two more years. It was hard to think about leaving a teaching position that was challenging but gave me great satisfaction. When I turned 40 and then 50 and then 60 years old it never caused me any angst. But then I turned 65 which meant I was required to sign up for Medicare. That got my attention and forced me to start seriously thinking about retirement. When reflecting about whether or not to retire from Fairport, someone suggested that I start making a list of what I wanted to do after retiring. On that list was to teach again in an international setting. The first person I asked about it was my husband, Randy. Because he is a super supportive husband, when I asked him if he would consider moving abroad with me again, he said, “Sure, let’s do it.” Since I had previously taught in Albania I have friends that now live and teach in many parts of the world. Some of them encouraged me to come teach at their current schools. After much thought, Randy and I decided to go back to Albania. The cost of living in Albania is very reasonable. The location and climate are good. Plus, we still have friends in Albania. Finally, the ease of moving back into a setting that we were familiar with was enticing. For all those reasons we decided Albania was again a good choice.

When I reached out to Albanian College last fall about the possibility of teaching grade one there again, they said they did not have a grade one opening but they did have a grade two opening. So starting on August 29th, I will be teaching grade two in Tirana (the capitol of Albania) at Albanian College. Even though I have taught at the school before I will be participating in the new teacher training which starts on August 17th. We fly out of Rochester on the morning of August 12th. We fly through JFK to Istanbul and then onto Tirana arriving there on the 13th. We have rented an apartment that is close to the apartment we had previously and is a five minute walk to the school.

We have a few reservations about moving abroad. How will Covid be? Will the war in Ukraine impact our stay in Albania? Obviously, we have given this much thought and talked to friends that are living there and feel confident in our decision to go. If it is not working out or we feel unsafe at any time, we will simply come home.

Thanks for joining me on this second adventure to Albania. It is wonderful to be able to stay in touch with our family and friends through this blog. I will be back in touch after we start to get settled in Tirana.

Four Months of Lockdown in South Africa

As you can tell, I have decided to write one more blog post so that I could tell you about my experience of being locked down in South Africa. When I arrived in South Africa on March 13th there were very few cases of COVID in the country. The country was functioning normally.

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Even though the country had not yet imposed any restrictions we decided that we were not comfortable being around others. We sought out places we could visit outside like the Union Buildings which is the seat of South African government and houses the office of the president of South Africa. You can see from the statue that Nelson Mandela is a beloved hero in this country (and the world).

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The Union Buildings are surrounded by beautiful gardens that include these gorgeous Birds of Paradise flowers.

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Several months before COVID one of the au pairs who had lived with the Chervenaks a few years ago, made plans to visit them in South Africa. Sophia and her boyfriend, Andrew, arrived from Germany a week before I did. They had anticipated spending another week in South Africa by visiting Cape Town. Unfortunately, they had to cancel their trip and then fly back to Germany instead. In this picture we are enjoying a bowl of ice cream as we listen to the president addressing the nation about COVID. President Ramaphosa is announcing that starting on March 26th the entire country will go into lock down. The lock down will prohibit people from leaving their homes unless they need to buy food, gasoline or need to get to a hospital. The lock down meant that we were not allowed to leave our property even to go for a walk, run or bike ride. 😦 Another restriction that was imposed starting March 26th was that the sale of tobacco products and alcohol was banned. Both of these restrictions are still in place as I write this blog post in August. The sale of tobacco and alcohol generates millions of rand (the South African currency) as tax revenue. Now, because of these restrictions, the government is not receiving this tax revenue causing even more hardship. Also, the black market is selling both alcohol and tobacco which has complicated everything.

Before the lock down started on the 26th of March the family went on as many walks…

…and bike rides…

…and puddle stomping expeditions as possible.

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Now virtual learning has begun. Jacob is in third grade and Ella is in first. They attend an international school in Pretoria that went to all virtual learning on March 16th. The children spent about a half a day on daily assignments sent by their teachers. Their lessons often included large, small or individual Zoom meetings.

Both Jacob and Ella needed help from a parent with virtual lessons. Although both these pictures show Ben helping the kids, it was really Elizabeth who spent the most time with the kids on this. Ben was usually doing his work virtually in another part of the house and I was teaching my Albanian students virtually in still another part of the house. Elizabeth does have a part time job writing a twice monthly newsletter for the Embassy but thank goodness it does not require a lot of hours. Keeping up with Jacob and Ella’s schooling plus keeping tabs on the younger two children floating around the house was definitely a full time job. I am not sure how families with two parents working full time could handle it all. Plus I think being a single parent during this pandemic would be especially stressful.

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Here Ben is heading off to work in the back of the house so he can attend a virtual meeting. 🙂

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The family is headed outside to take a PE class with Ben. Don’t we look tough and ready  to go?!?!

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Meanwhile, back in the States, Josh is food shopping at Wegman’s and finds the bread aisle almost empty. This shortage only happened at the beginning of the pandemic.

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Randy has spent much time during the pandemic making a waterwheel. He adores his workshop and can easily spend hours at a time making all kinds of things. He decided to make a waterwheel to go in a stream at our property (the Loop) which is about two hours south of Rochester. The property is quite rustic with no electricity or running water. Randy has decided to make this waterwheel to generate electricity for when he spends time at the Loop.

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Josh spent much of his time during the pandemic digging up part of the backyard and planting a vegetable garden.

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At the same time, David’s job was changing rapidly at NYU Languone Medical Center in Manhattan.

David sent these pictures to help us understand the difference between a healthy lung x-ray on the right and and a COVID infected lung x-ray on the left.

David spent some time walking around NYC and sent a few pics of the empty streets. He saw the USS Comfort docked in the harbor. The video is from Times Square, so sad. 😦

Back to Pretoria and the Chervs enjoying their pool. Since South Africa is in the southern hemisphere their seasons are opposite of ours. When I arrived in March it was a week away from the first day of fall. The fall and winter are quite mild in South Africa which means the Chervs use the pool year round.

Digging a hole in the yard looking for worms, playing shoe shop with Nana, playing house in the dog crate and simply being cute were all ways to pass the time when we were locked down during the pandemic.

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Elizabeth and Ben are great cooks! Every meal I ate with them was delicious and almost always full of healthy ingredients. I never prepared a meal while visiting them but I was in charge of cleaning up each night. It was a routine that we fell into and it worked well.

I was so glad that I was able to be with Juliet to celebrate her third birthday on March 27th. Ben has a tradition of buying roses for his daughters on their birthdays. Juliet turned three so her daddy bought her three roses, very sweet!

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I absolutely adore this picture!  Francesca is an important and loved part of the Chervenak family. She is originally from Zimbabwe but has lived in South Africa for 20 years. She lives with the Chervs in her own apartment which is part of the house. Her responsibilities mostly center around housework but she also helps out with childcare at times. When the pandemic hit, Francesca had the choice of moving out to live with one of her adult children or staying put in quarantine with the Chervs. She chose to stay with the Chervs which I was glad for because it allowed me the time to get to know this lovely person.

Reading aloud to Juliet each night was a highlight of my time in lock down. Her sense of humor, enthusiasm and candidness made her such fun to be around.

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Look at the text sent out in Albania in early April by the prime minister, Edi Rama. I thought South Africa had a tight lock down but it was mild compared to what was happening in Albania. No one was allowed to leave their home from 1:00PM Friday until 5:00AM Monday for several weeks. Also, you could not leave your home unless you had a pass that you applied for and then was issued to you via text. The very hard lock down kept the COVID numbers low for several weeks but then the economy was suffering so much that Albania opened back up. According to some of my friends that live there, very few people wear masks or social distance now. The number of COVID cases is going up significantly.

Spa Day!!! One of the many events that Elizabeth came up with to help keep the children entertained during quarantine was to have a Spa Day. Elizabeth gave manicures and pedicures, Ben gave massages and I gave facials. All of this with the backdrop of relaxing spa music. The kids loved it and so did we.

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A few times while I was in South Africa, Ambassador Marks addressed the embassy community. Her remarks were usually brief and included an open chat line. There were often questions regarding rather the American employees of the embassy would be staying in South Africa or would they be evacuated. The decision to evacuate was contingent on the possibility of a problem in any of these three areas: a lack of hospital beds, a disruption to the food supply or the dangers of civil unrest. None of these were a significant concern while I was there. Some families did decide to leave South Africa (particularly if a family member had a health concern) but most families, including Elizabeth and Ben felt fine staying in SA.

The kids came up with the idea of having an indoor snowball fight with wads of paper. It was another popular way to pass the time. Can you hear Ella playing her violin in the background? 🙂

The older two children had Crazy Hair Day at school so all four kids got involved.

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Albanian College had Crazy Hair Day the same week so here I am. 🙂

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Juliet was in her Little Tykes Cozy Coupe when she got going too fast and was stopped by a gate at the end of the driveway. She was thrown out of the toy car and hit her head causing lots of blood to come from a cut. Anyways, Elizabeth and Ben took her to the emergency room were she had a few staples put in her scalp to close the wound. It was scary for everyone but the good news is that Juliet healed up fine within a few days.

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For much of the time I was in SA we had weekly family Zoom meetings. Loved seeing and talking with everyone!

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Ready to dye Easter eggs!

The Easter egg hunt is on!

Elizabeth prepared a gorgeous and delicious Easter Brunch for the family.

Back in Fairport, Randy has finished making the waterwheel and is trying it out in our backyard.

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Josh has extended his garden onto the deck and has planted peas in the planters that I usually put flowers in. Looking good!

In April, David was assigned to an ICU unit to care for COVID patients. The picture on the left is what the ICU looks like normally. The picture on the right shows what the unit looks like when caring for COVID patients. Notice the rolling stand with the control center mounted on it outside of the patients’ rooms. That is so the healthcare personnel can monitor the patients’ vitals and ventilators without actually going in the room. They are trying to minimize their exposure to the virus. By early May, David had rotated back to his surgical placement.

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When there was a shortage of PPE this was the bag David put his mask in so he could reuse it later.

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Legos, Legos, Legos…

…ongoing Nerf gun wars…

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…and walking on the driveway in the rain were all popular quarantine activities.

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As part of a school fun day the children were to dress up like a book character. Juliet did not understand the concept of a book character but she definitely understood what it meant to dress up.

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Look at the weather for a typical late fall, early winter week in South Africa!

But on occasion it was like this. Elizabeth and Ben live on a hill so sometimes the weather is a bit more exaggerated.

Ben got Elizabeth and I going on a Peloton cycling program called Power Zones. I definitely was not confident that I would like it but since I could no longer go for runs I decided I would try it. Elizabeth and I both really got into it. Elizabeth was even riding everyday while I rode every 2 or 3 days.

LOVE these pictures that Elizabeth took of her daughter. Juliet is wearing a dress that my mom made for Elizabeth when she was a little girl.

The kids loved riding their scooters around and around the garage and driveway.

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I got in the habit of watching Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefing. Although I don’t always agree with his politics I did find his briefings to be informative and comforting. He always had a plan and could explain the thinking behind the plan.

Mom made a cake and the kids get to lick the batter. Yum!

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Having red hair is fun!!!

Dad gets a haircut during lockdown compliments of mom.

Just like thousands of brides around the world, my niece Kathryn, had her wedding postponed because of COVID. Elizabeth and I attended a virtual bridal shower for Kathryn and her fiancé, Calvin. Although it was not the way a traditional wedding shower would be, it certainly was still a very lovely affair. It was so nice to gather with family to celebrate Kathryn’s next step in life.

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This Mother’s Day card was put together for me by my very thoughtful daughter.  xoxo

Ella is taking after her mother because she came up with the idea that the family needed to have an International Day. Each of the four children was paired with an adult. Each pair chose one or two countries and then prepared food from those countries to share with the rest of the family. Loved it!

The children and I played cards, cards and more cards throughout the entire lockdown. It was fun for them and fun for me!

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Celebrating Liberty and Chappy’s 3rd birthday! There was steak for dinner with any scraps going to the dogs plus the kids and Elizabeth baked some special dog treats. The Chervs adopted these two dogs about a year ago and they have been a wonderful addition to the family.

Elizabeth and I took a virtual yoga class twice a week throughout our lockdown. Our teacher was Susan from the same yoga studio that I go to in Fairport.

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Yay, as of June 1st the lockdown went to Phase 4 which meant that we could go off our property for walks and scooter rides. Here we are on our first time out, so exciting!

Do you remember when I told you that Francesca was originally from Zimbabwe but has lived in SA for the last 20 years? Because of the pandemic the South African government gave money to all the Southern Africans to help them buy food for themselves. However, people like Francesca (and the people from her church) did not get any of this money since they were not born in SA. The pandemic makes it impossible for these people to work so they are constantly in need of food. Such a sad situation! Elizabeth and I decided that we would ask Francesca to go with us to shop for food and then deliver it to some families from Francesca’s church. The Chervenak children also donated some of their toys to these families. It was a humbling experience to see how appreciative these families were and to realize how very fortunate our family is that we are able to help these families in a small way.

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If you know me well, you know that I do not care for cats primarily because I am allergic to them. The Chervs’ cat was quite insistent on laying on me even though we were trying hard to get the cat to stay away from me.

Bennett lost his first tooth during the lockdown.

The 2019-20 school year has come to a close for the Chervenak children.

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As I said earlier, Elizabeth has a part time job writing a newsletter for the Embassy. With all the extra help from her children it can be a bit of challenge to get the newsletter written.

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Every Friday throughout quarantine Ben made pizza for the family on Friday night. He made the crust from scratch and then offered lots of yummy ingredients for all of us to choose from. Friday Pizza Night also included a movie!

Look at the new vehicle the Chervs bought during quarantine. It is called a Defender and is a 2002 model that they plan to bring back to the States someday. It is a perfect vehicle for their family because it easily seats everyone plus there is plenty of room for the dogs.

Since school has ended the children were given the opportunity to enroll in virtual Winter School if they wanted to do so. Winter School is three weeks long and goes for three hours a day. The purpose of it was simply to have fun, no academics involved. Here the children are taking a fort building class.

Winter School also involved a family challenge of making an amusement park out of candy and…

…making a mini-museum. I am not sure who enjoyed the challenges more, the kids or Elizabeth. The pictures don’t adequately show how amazing these creations were.

With lots of coaching from my good friend Sarah K., Elizabeth and I figured out how to color my hair. I had my hair colored right before I left Tirana and I was not happy with ALL the gray that was showing up in my hair as quarantine continued. Ben does not know what to think of his mother-in-law. 🙂 I really do not know how anyone is able to color their hair by themselves. I could not have done it without Elizabeth.

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Look at how sweet Bennet fell asleep one night. This is not a posed picture. He actually fell asleep with the lights on surrounded by all these books about places around the world.

I cannot tell you how many walks, scooter rides and bike rides we went on for the last two months I was in SA. It was a good way to get out of the house and a good way to help the kids burn off some energy. Up until I left in mid-July the kids and I rarely left the property except for outings like this. The number of COVID case continues to go up, up, up.

fullsizeoutput_11634This Father’s Day card for Randy was put together for him by our very thoughtful daughter.  xoxo

Elizabeth’s Father’s Day gift for Ben was a 30 minute consultation with Ben’s favorite Peloton instructor, Matt Wilpers. I love how excited Ben was about the gift.

Here we are celebrating Francesca’s 57th birthday. Don’t you just love her hat she wore to her birthday party?!? All the children love GoGo but I think she and Juliet have an extra special bond partially because Francesca spends more time taking care of Juliet than she does the older children. GoGo is what the children call Francesca and means grandmother.

It is the last day of school at Albanian College so I scheduled a virtual dance party with my students to celebrate. Of course, I invited my grandchildren to the dance party.

Jacob turned 10 on July 3rd. He was such a good sport about having to celebrate his birthday in lockdown. He could have complained about it but instead he planned the following activities for the day: a family bike ride, a family game of Minecraft, a Nerf gun war, hot dogs and chips for dinner followed by an ice cream cake and presents. Randy sent Jacob a huge bag of Wint-o-green mints which Jacob was super excited about.

Ella absolutely loves animals of all kinds and has said she wants to be a pet shop owner when she grows up. 🙂 She has also expressed interest in horseback riding. With COVID eliminating all of the kids’ activities Elizabeth and Ben decided to seek out horseback riding lessons for Ella. After going to class the first time it became apparent that Bennett and Juliet wanted to participate too. All three children are loving the experience!

Because of the lockdown no travel is allowed outside of each province. The Chervs live in the province of Gauteng which is the smallest province geographically but also the most densely populated because it includes the cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg. Everyone was feeling fairly housebound so it was decided that a farmhouse an hour away would be a nice getaway for the weekend. Climbing trees was a favorite activity for the weekend.

The farmhouse included a hot tub which the children spent much time in. The other children in the picture are part of the Jain family. In early June Elizabeth and Ben decided to create a “double bubble” with another family. That meant that both families agreed to continue to isolate from other people and maintain a safe lockdown. By creating a “double bubble” the children, and adults too, could have a chance to socialize with a few others outside of the family circle.

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Aren’t they darling?!? The kids LOVED being together for the weekend. The Jain family is absolutely delightful. The dad is from the UK and the mom is from Sweden. It is always SO enjoyable to get to know people from another culture.

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Every Sunday at 3:30 in the afternoon the family attends a 45 minute virtual church service. When the Chervs lived in Virginia they attended a sweet, little church called St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. This is the same church they are attending virtually. The sermons given by Father Rob are timely and inspiring to listen to.

Now that the lockdown has moved to being less restrictive we are allowed to visit some of the nearby game preserves. This park is about 20 minutes from the Chervenak’s house.

This is the one mother/daughter outing we went on while I was in South Africa. We rented bikes and went on a 10K mountain bike ride. I have never done any mountain bike riding nor has Elizabeth. We found it to be more rigorous than we had anticipated but we still had fun. Nothing better than time with your grown kids!  xoxo

Can you tell that Bennett likes dinosaurs? Once again, I was so glad to be in SA to celebrate another birthday. Bennett is a sweet, thoughtful, independent child who focuses and works hard to get what he wants. He will be starting kindergarten in August.

Earlier in the day Ella had introduced her brother to this song on Spotify. Here is Bennett belting it out until he discovers that his mom is taking video.  🙂

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Even with the pandemic Randy continued to volunteer with the Egypt Fire Department. There were all kinds of safety and cleaning protocols put in place so he felt comfortable participating.

One thing the fire department did during quarantine was to do drive-bys for young children who had birthdays. There was only one fireman in each truck and it was common for a police car or ambulance to join the parade. Following the emergency vehicles friends and family members would drive by in their cars honking their horns and shouting birthday greetings out the window. It was a wonderful way to celebrate a young child’s birthday when no one could leave the house or come over.

Of course, the Fairport High School graduation was canceled so instead the graduates and their families drove through the parking lot of the high school as the fire department  sprayed an arch of water overhead as the families drove by. All the teachers were social distanced around the parking lot to wave and cheer on the graduates. I am so proud of our community for making the best of a difficult situation.

The waterwheel has made it into the stream at the Loop!

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David sent us these pictures and video of NYC clapping and cheering for the healthcare workers.

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David participated in some of the peaceful protests after George Floyd was murdered. He said there were definitely some violent riots earlier on but that the protests he walked in were well organized and he felt safe participating.

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Josh’s garden turned out to be a big success. Right now it is producing lots of tomatoes, peppers and pea pods with more to come. Yum!

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Randy successfully made it back to America from Albania with all seven of our bags. He really is amazing! His trip included a canceled flight (that was quickly rebooked) but then the last leg of his trip from Newark to Rochester was messed up so he decided to rent a car and make the five hour drive home. He then spent 14 days in quarantine at the Loop, his favorite place in the world.

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My flight back to the States did not leave until the evening which meant that we could all go on one more family bike ride before I left. My time with Elizabeth and her family was a gift I thought I would never experience. The pandemic has been a crisis on so many levels but the silver lining for me was spending all this time in South Africa. Because of the lockdown I feel like I really did not go to South Africa, I went to the Chervenak’s house. We did not visit all the attractions or the typical tourist spots. We stayed home and stayed safe and healthy. I LOVED my time with this precious family. They welcomed me with open arms and could not have done any more to help me feel comfortable and a part of their family. Of course, there were occasional up and downs as there are with all families but overall it was so, so good. I am proud of the way Elizabeth and Ben are raising their children. Parenting is not easy, especially under these conditions, but they handle it all with grace.

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My 34 hour trip back to the US started at the Dutch Embassy in Pretoria. I was flying on KLM Airlines which is a Dutch airline. Since the flight was a repatriation flight the passengers are not allowed to go directly to the airport. We had to be at this meeting spot 6 hours before the flight. 😦  The line of people continued on for three blocks. Everyone was masked and did a decent job of social distancing. A few people have asked me what a repatriation flight is. It is a charter flight organized by governments to bring their citizens back to their country of origin. Since an inbound plane sent to pick up passengers for a repatriation flight has no passengers, customers on repatriation flights end up paying the equivalent to a round trip ticket. My repatriation flight was VERY expensive but I felt like I had no choice but to pay it because  South Africa’s airport is not open for any other type of flight.

I was assigned to bus 13 for the 30 minute ride from the Dutch Embassy to the airport in Johannesburg.

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The bus also provided good social distancing.

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The caravan of 13 buses had a police escort with the police cars using lights and sirens. We also stopped at no stoplights because the police blocked the intersections. I am not sure why all that happened. It was interesting…

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The Johannesburg airport was fairly empty with only one coffee shop open staffed by three employees wearing their masks on their chins. Look at the arrivals and departures monitor, blank. One more thing, I had my temperature taken when I entered the airport and before I boarded the plane.

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This bag of snacks and drinks was on my seat when I boarded the flight. KLM also served one hot meal on the 11 hour flight to Amsterdam. The plane was about 60% full. I had a window seat with no one sitting next to me. Yay!

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Good bye to South Africa! I am already looking forward to returning someday when the world is healthy again.

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Arriving in Amsterdam…

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I always find it interesting to look at the monitors in the airport just to see where all the flights are going. I am allowed to transit through Amsterdam but I would not be allowed to stay in Amsterdam or go to any of the EU cities listed above.

The Amsterdam airport was full of reminders about how to travel safely and to welcome travelers back. My temperature was taken when I arrived in Amsterdam.

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I have now boarded my 9 hour flight to Atlanta. KLM code shares with Delta. Delta made the decision when they started flying again that they would not sell the middle seat on any of their flights to help with social distancing. I really like their decision and will keep it in mind when I book travel in the future. This flight was about 40% full as you can see by all the empty seats.

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This was the bag of snacks in my seat for my Amsterdam to Atlanta flight.

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Landing in Atlanta, back on American soil! Although our country has many ups and downs, I would not want to live permanently anywhere else in the world. I LOVED the opportunity to live and teach abroad but am glad to be back home.

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Signs seen throughout the Atlanta airport.

It was sad to see so much of the Atlanta airport closed. 😦

Look at all the different masks I wore while traveling. David had suggested I try to wear a N95 mask as much as possible while actually on the plane. N95’s are really HARD to breathe through so I wore them when I boarded and deplaned and if I needed to use the bathroom. I had read that those are the most likely parts of a flight when germs are transmitted. I just could not handle wearing the N95 for the entire flight.

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Getting ready to land in beautiful upstate New York. When I landed in ROC I filled out paperwork so the state could do contact tracing. The state texts me everyday to ask how I am feeling. I take my temperature a few times a day. Randy was at the Loop when I arrived so Josh picked me up. I sat in back, we both had on masks plus we had the windows down. I did not want to risk infecting our son after traveling for such a long time.

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The quarantine shuttle…

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Now I am on day 12 of a 14 day quarantine at the Homewood Suites. Randy stayed at Hilton properties when he traveled for work so we had lots of points. That means I am not having to pay for this 14 day stay. I could have stayed at home as long as I restricted myself to staying in one room but I could not figure out how to easily access the bathroom, television and the kitchen without having to constantly wipe up after myself. Also, I did not want to worry about infecting Josh with anything. Here, at the hotel, I have a bedroom, TV and small kitchen to use as needed. Josh has been bringing me food and it has worked out fine. I have kept myself busy by stitching, reading, talking on the phone to family and friends and taking several virtual classes through the Fairport Schools. There is a lot of prep involved in going back to teaching grade one special education especially when part of it will be virtual and part of it will be in person.

This is my last, and by far the longest, blog post probably because it covers four months. Kudos to you if you are still reading. 🙂 Thanks again for your many messages of support and interest over the last two years. If you ever have the opportunity or interest in writing a blog, you should go for it. It is a wonderful way to reflect on and capture your thoughts and experiences. When I started this blog I had no idea where I was going with it but now that I am finished with it, I think I will miss it, especially the opportunity to stay in touch with all of you.

Teaching in Albania has Ended

As of June 25th my teaching in Albania came to an end. Throughout March and April I had held out hope that perhaps we could get back to school for at least the last few weeks of school. But of course, just like most of the rest of the world, that was not to be. Since March 10th I have spent 3 to 4 hours a day prepping for and delivering instruction to my grade one students. As you can imagine teaching children online versus in person is completely different. Here are a few reflections after completing more than three months of distance learning:

  • I felt like I was able to keep most of my students from losing their skills but I don’t think any of them made the progress they could have made if we had had face-to-face teaching. My students who were new to speaking English this year had a harder time simply because they were not hearing English spoken in the classroom all day long like they needed to do.
  • The school’s expectation was that each primary teacher prepare 20-25 minutes each of literacy, math and Albanian with the goal that each primary age child would spend an hour and a half daily on distance learning. In general I made 4-5 assignments each day that followed this general structure:
    • read aloud- I made a 6-8 minute video of me reading aloud each day
    • math assignment- many of the assignments started with a 3-4 minute video of me teaching a skill and then I made a pencil/paper or IXL (an excellent, scaffolded, electronic math resource) assignment
    • reading assignment- alternating between Raz-Kids, Storyline Online and Tumble Books; the children recorded themselves reading and then answered a short quiz about what they had read
    • writing assignment- once again many of these assignments started with a 3-4 minute video of me teaching a writing skill (i.e. descriptive words, punctuation, narrative writing, etc.) followed by assigning the child to write in their journal for at least 10 minutes
    • inquiry assignment- these assignments centered on the central idea (international baccalaureate) and were either science or social studies related
    • As the children completed their assignments they sent them to me through a platform called Class Dojo. I individually commented, approved or returned these assignments to the children each day.
  • I scheduled class Zoom meetings once or twice a week. One of the meetings was academic and usually centered on our inquiry unit. The other weekly class Zoom meeting was more for fun. i.e. celebrating a child’s birthday, playing a game or just talking about whatever the kids wanted to talk about. I did periodic individual Zoom meetings which I found to be very helpful and will do more of if distance learning continues in the fall.
  • The parents were key to the success the children experienced with distance learning. The children are 6 and 7 years old so they cannot manage distance learning independently. The more involved the parents were the more assignments the child would complete which meant the more progress the child made. I really admired the parents and how they managed it all. Most of them were working from home while trying to manage their child’s schooling. Some children were cared for by grandparents who spoke no English which meant the children had to wait for mom or dad to help them when they could.
  • My technology skills took a giant leap forward over the last few months because they had to do so. I think the main thing I learned about technology is to be patient with myself. Often, if I clicked around on a site I could independently figure out how it worked and how to implement it with my students. If needed, I could always depend on another teacher to get me going.
  • As you already know a big part of school is socializing with other children. I encouraged my students to call, FaceTime, use Just Talk Kids and Skype with their classmates. A few of them did stay in touch with one another but it simply is not the same as actually getting to play together. Lack of socialization for the kids was one of the biggest downsides to distance learning. The children really, really missed each other.

Here is one of our many Zoom meetings.

 

Here are some of the many platforms my students used during their time with distance learning. Usually a school has to buy a subscription to use most of these but because of the pandemic these online companies gave us free and unlimited use of their platforms. What a wonderful gift!

Here is link to a video I made to say farewell to my students,  2019-20 Grade One at Albanian College   It is 11 minutes long so please just watch part of it. It is always bittersweet to say goodbye to students. I feel ready to have a few weeks off from teaching but at the same time I will definitely miss my students particularly because there is a good chance I will never see them again. 😦

A year ago I was finishing up my first year of international teaching. It was an exciting year full of meeting new people, adjusting to living internationally and many, many travel opportunities. This second year of international teaching started by the entire administrative staff from Albanian College resigning followed by three earthquakes and then a pandemic. Despite the contrast between the two years I have no regrets. I have grown to love the country of Albania and it’s fiercely loyal, hospitable people, beautiful beaches and stunning mountains. The opportunity to work (and play) with people from around the world cannot be underestimated. I have LOVED this experience! It has helped me grow as a person and as a teacher. I am grateful to the Fairport Central School District for giving me a two year leave to pursue this dream. Also, my rock star husband was so very supportive through it all. I could and would not have done it without him. 

So what is next? I am headed back to Fairport to finish my teaching career there. I have reconnected to my FCSD email account and the 2,800 emails that have accumulated over the last two years. :0 I will be resuming my position as a grade one special education teacher at Dudley School.  Who knows what teaching will be like in the fall. No matter how it looks I am ready for and looking forward to it.

Right now I am still in South Africa. Last month I purchased a ticket from Austrian Air to fly back to Albania on July 4th. Our apartment and my classroom need to be packed up plus I wanted to have a bit of closure before moving back to the States. Randy bought tickets to meet me in Albania. My flights were canceled, not because I could not get into Albania but because I could not get out of South Africa. Randy was able to get into Albania and is there packing up with the help of a few friends. I have now purchased a repatriation flight to America that departs here on July 19th. I feel confident that it will go because it is on KLM Airlines which has had a flight every Sunday for the last several weeks. The cost of the ticket was horribly expensive but I felt like I had no choice. I need to get home so I can quarantine for two weeks and then get my life restarted in Fairport.

This will probably be my last post but I may do one more about my almost 4 months locked down in South Africa with Elizabeth and her family. We’ll see… 

Thanks so much for reading this blog over the last two years and going on this adventure with me. I have enjoyed sharing it all with family and friends. Your encouraging words and interest in this experience have humbled me. My hopes and prayers are that you and your loved ones are staying healthy during this world health crisis.

Sad…

When thinking of a title for this blog,  “sad” was the word that kept resonating in my head so hence the title.

I am slow with an update on what is happening with our lives right now. As with the whole world, our lives have been turned upside down over the last two weeks. At the end of February, Randy returned to the USA to get started on prepping the taxes and to touch base at home. He was scheduled to return to Albania on March 11th. Six months ago Elizabeth had made plans to come visit Randy and I in Tirana arriving on March 19th and staying for 12 days. All those plans changed with the coronavirus.

On Monday, March 10th school was called off at Albanian College because of two diagnosed cases of coronavirus.  Randy and I decided that it was not smart for him to return to Albania so he stayed in the States. It was also decided that Elizabeth would not travel to Albania. So then I had to decide what I was going to do. Since I had not seen Elizabeth and her family since July, 2019 I made the decision to go to South Africa. I really thought I would only be there for a month at the most. With everything escalating so quickly, Randy and I had several discussions within the last few days about whether or not I should return to the States. Ultimately, I decided that I did not want to take a 24 hour flight back home at the risk of getting sick and then exposing Randy and Josh. I am staying in SA for the long haul. South Africa now has 225 cases. Elizabeth’s family and I are self isolating. School was canceled last week and we are choosing to leave the house on a very limited basis. The rest of South Africa is preparing to shut down on Thursday, March 26th. Just like all over the world we will all stay put in hopes of slowing down this virus.

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Here are a couple pictures from Tirana as I was leaving. So surreal! Probably similar to many of your communities. I have actually been very proud of Albania for quickly reacting to COVID-19. Considering how closely tied they are to Italy in many, many ways it was a good decision to close everything up quickly. Here is a link to Albania’s current restrictions. Albania’s Restrictions

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The airport monitor as I flew through Istanbul.

IMG_4439I arrived in Johannesburg on Friday, March 13th.

I love seeing and being with my grandchildren and their parents even though the circumstances are far from optimal.

For the last two weeks I have been spending 3 to 4 hours a day with distance learning for my Albanian students. My technology skills are improving daily as I learn to use one new app after another and then get my kids (and their parents) familiar with them. I am sure I am speaking for thousands of teachers around the world when I say it is a challenge to keep the children engaged and to make sure they  are learning the skills they need to move to the next grade level. I miss my students and being in the classroom very, very much.

I start each week with a short video just to get the kids (and me) prepped for the upcoming week. Here is the video I sent out last week.

Before I close this post I want to give you a quick update on our son, David. As many of you know, he is finishing up his residency in cardiothorasic surgery at New York University in Manhattan. As expected, there have been fewer and fewer surgeries over the  last week. David is expecting to be assigned to a COVID Unit soon. He has been told that all the healthcare workers should expect to be infected. Prayers for the safety and health of all healthcare workers worldwide.

I am so sad, sad, sad to say this may be my last blog post because I am not sure I will get to teach in Albania again. I would not be surprised if Albanian College closes down for the rest of the school year.

I am praying for peace and health for you and your loved ones as we move through this very difficult time in our lives.

A Long Weekend in London

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With an upcoming three day weekend in early February I checked Skyscanner (similar to Travelocity only for Europe) and looked for the least expensive flights. London was by far the least expensive on an airline called Wizz Air (a Hungarian airline) plus it was a direct three hour flight. We flew into Luton Airport which is an hour and 40 minute train ride from the center of London. Luton is where most of the discount airlines fly in and out of.

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The price of the flight was great but the downside is the long train ride into the city.

The next day we went to the charming Covent Gardens area to meet up for a free walking tour. We had breakfast before meeting the tour and the bill was 38 pounds ($50) for a relatively small meal. Yikes! It might be inexpensive to fly to London but it is very expensive in most other ways.

Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, the London Eye, Westminister Abbey and Big Ben (with scaffolding) were a few of the places that we saw on our free walking tour.

We used the Underground to get around London. It was easy and economical. I snapped the picture of the Way Out (instead of Exit) and Mind the Gap signs because it seemed so English.

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That evening we went to the top of the Shard. The building was built in 2012 and at 95 stories it is the tallest building in the United Kingdom.

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I cannot take credit for taking this picture but I am adding it to my blog because I think it captures the size of this building.

Our view from the top…

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The next morning I ran over this bridge (crossing the Thames River) to St. Paul’s Cathedral where Princess Diana and Prince Charles were married.

As I was running around the outside of the Cathedral I came across this progression of signs. I never could found where it went after the word “to”.

St. Paul’s is undergoing some construction to add ramps into the sanctuary allowing the church to be more accessible for all. Yay! Seeing this construction made me proud to be an Episcopalian.

If you were to look at Randy’s playlist on his phone you would notice that 90% of the music he listens to is by the Beatles. We decided to take a tour that showed us where John and Ringo lived, the place where Paul and Ringo were married and a few other Beatles landmarks.

Abbey Road was probably the most iconic Beatles spot we visited. We were not brave enough to go out in traffic to take a picture but I did get a picture of Randy on the sidewalk next to Abbey Road.