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The cost of it

In less than a month we leave Albania for two months in New Zealand. This is SUPER EXCITING for many many reasons… but it also means that we’re coming close to the end of our year of blissful constant holiday! We’ve been here for nine months now and when we return in mid-January it will be with the purpose of finding jobs  to get the money rolling in.

But before that happens its worth considering the cost of it all… because when I started researching our move to Albania it was very difficult to find information on how much things cost which made it very difficult to figure out how much we’d need to live for a year.

It’s definitely cost more than we anticipated, but it’s worth noting that to live here for a year, buy a car and pay for a wedding will cost us not that much more than the average cost of a wedding in London. Result!

So here’s an idea of what things cost (converted to GBP at £1 = 176 lek):

  • Car (2003 Mercedes in good condition): £4,600
  • Car tax (for 1 year): £40
  • Car MOT: £10
  • Rent – 2 bed, furnished apt (per month): £113
  • Utilities, service charges etc (per month): £23
  • Mobile phone (per month): £6
  • Petrol: £1 a litre
  • Beer (at a bar): £0.85
  • Coffee (macchiato): £0.70
  • Nice meal out for two (with drinks): £17-£23
  • Bargain meal for two (with drinks): £10
  • Take away souvlaki (for after the pub!): £0.85
  • Loaf of bread: £0.40
  • Dry pasta (500g): £0.40
  • A whole entire watermelon: £1
  • Bus ride: £0.17
  • Taxi ride home (20 min): £4
  • Large bottle of water: £0.35
  • Hotel room (double): £20-£25 off season, £35-£45 peak season

Then there have been the numerous unplanned costs: from buying new tyres for the car (£310) to paying for a bloke who could barely speak English to act as our official translator at the legalisation of our marriage (£25)! The endless bureaucracy is fueled by endless cash payments! When we took the car in for its MOT we were told by friends that leaving a few hundred lek on the dashboard was the best way to guarantee that the car passed inspection! I refused to pay the bribe and the car passed anyway. Later on we discovered that loose change we left in the middle console (used for paying for parking) had all been removed! Ahhh, Albania…

 

 

 

 

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Albania’s Manhattan

After our crazy Albanian wedding, we got to spend an entire month travelling around Albania (with side-steps to Montenegro and Croatia), seeing more of this gorgeous country.

Hands down the highlight of our trip was Thethi.

Getting there was an adventure alone. The only road into the village travels through the Shala mountains – Albania’s Alps – in bone-rattling, terror-inducing style. It’s very difficult to get any vehicle in unless it’s a solid 4WD, or one of Albania’s indestructible furgons (mini-vans). We chose this option, leaving our car in Shkodra and putting our lives in the very competent hands of our furgon driver. (Although, rumour has it, road improvements mean from August the road is accessible by ‘normal cars’ until the rain comes in the autumn!)

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Weirdly, arriving in Thethi felt a little like the first time I arrived in downtown Manhattan – claustrophobic. The village is nestled deep in a narrow valley surrounded by huge mountains, instead of sky-scrapers. During the winter months it’s not unusual for the village to be completely cut off from the outside world and many residents relocate to warmer climes and wait for the spring. In fact it’s so isolated that according to the locals, the village was founded by Catholics escaping the Ottomans, which seemed to work as they were largely left alone.

It’s completely stunning…

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Tourism is big business in Thethi. It attracts close to 10,000 visitors a year – many walk there from Valbona (8 hours), or more ambitiously, through the tracks opened by the Balkans Peace Park Project through Kosovo and Montenegro.

We spent two nights there, staying is one of many guesthouses in the valley. Foreign investment has enabled a number of guesthouses to modernise and we enjoyed very comfortable, modern accommodation – much-needed after a long day trekking up and down the valley!

The day before we left for Thethi I had a little panic attack about the trip ahead. Everything I had read warned me about the isolation and the perils of travelling there and here I was dragging my husband and my parents to quite possibly the remotest area of Europe. I was sure we’d end up plunging off a cliff! Oh it was so worth it. I almost hope that they never properly finish that road. That way it will never become just another one of Europe’s over-touristy beauty spots.

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Half-way mark

Almost without noticing, earlier this month it was six months since we arrived in Albania and started our adventure. It feels like forever and yesterday all at the same time.

Our crazy life has become so normal to us. This was brought home to me when my parents came to stay in June. Their reactions to the everyday madness of life in Tirana reminded me of how I first reacted when I arrived – before it all just became normal!

Hands down what I’ve treasured most is that I’ve spent pretty much all day every day of the last six months with my husband. Who gets to do that these days?! We’ve been able to have the best of each other’s time – not the bits left over after a long day at work. It’s pretty much been the best way to start married life ever! That I’ve not driven him completely crazy is a testament to how amazing he is!

The next best thing is the ‘not working’ bit! It is amazing to have eliminated work stress from our lives – which isn’t to say that it hasn’t been replaced by other stresses, like money stress!

Looking back at my strategic plan, put together in December last year, I’ve been able to tick off six of my ten objectives. Not a bad effort! My biggest failing has been in (not) mastering the Albanian language. My understanding isn’t too bad at all – I can follow most conversations – but my speaking is terrible. It’s been too easy to rely on English-speakers around me and it’s definitely made me lazy!

It’s also been disappointing how little time we’ve been able to invest in the farm house. A lesson for me in how things aren’t quite so easy to achieve here as they may be in the UK or NZ.

I have definitely improved my Albanian housewife skills. There is always a supply of drinks and snacks in my cupboards that can be served up to unexpected guests. The house is never more than a few minutes away from extreme tidiness (although I should confess this is more due to the efforts of my husband than me – oops). I can prepare the guest bedroom in mere minutes.

I have come to love Albania – although I am not blind to its faults. This country has so much potential but too many of its citizens have little sense of their civic responsibilities. (Yet who can blame them after generations of politicians and leaders have repeatedly ripped them off.)

I find myself screaming in frustration on an almost daily basis at the bizarre bureaucracy. It is not unusual for us to spend a day walking between four or five government buildings before we’re finally directed to the one we’re supposed to be at. Or, turning up at the visa office to collect my visa only to discover that almost overnight the visa office has been relocated to a town outside of Tirana! And don’t get me started on the driving…

It has been a challenge to live in a culture where there are prevailing views that seem so out of step with what I am familiar with. I particularly struggle with the societal position women are shoe-horned into.

But I am embracing the simplicity of life… the locally sourced, deliciously fresh and tasty food, the companionship of family, the relentlessly beautiful weather, the lazy coffees that last for hours, the evening walks through the mountains behind our apartment building. It’s not a bad way to live.

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Dajti is conveniently located behind our apartment!

Six months brings us to our half-way mark on our one year adventure. But plans always change and the next six months are certainly bringing some new challenges as we figure out where to next.

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One summer’s day

One late summer’s day, about 13 years ago, my husband was working with his brother and father in their carpentry workshop in Burrel when they heard a massive explosion that shook the building. Across the valley the usual view they had of their farm amongst the trees was obscured by an enormous plume of smoke (my husband described it like the mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion).

They ran into the centre of town to find out what was going on but it wasn’t until many days later that they learnt the full story – that a man living on the land of a former military base at the mouth of the valley had been using a metal grinder, the sparks from which hit the weapons storage area igniting a fire, creating a massive explosion and sending missiles firing across the valley and the flat land.

People ran for their lives, sheltering wherever they could. At the farm the three families, and neighbours, gathered in two rooms that were somewhat protected by concrete roofs.

Leaving his brother in town, my husband went with his father and found a furgon (van) driver who was heading out past the road to the farm to check on his own family. They sped off, persuading the army officers now blocking the road to let them past. The smoke was making it difficult to see the road and there were still missiles firing off in all directions.

The walk from the main road to the farm was desolate – there was absolutely no one outside. My husband and his father were fully expecting to find their family dead. But when they made it to the farm a quick head count confirmed all were safe and sound. At midnight they ventured out to survey the damage to the houses closest to the weapons depot.

Over the next few days the area was swarming with police and army personnel searching the area for damage and bodies. It was nine days after the weapons depot exploded that a trail of ants led searchers to dig down through the ruins of the house on the military base and they found the man with his grinder buried deep under the rubble and burnt almost beyond recognition.

Walking the land was dangerous in the days and months following as there was unexploded ordnance covering the whole area. Searches and clean ups were tentatively carried out – before taking every footstep the ground was closely examined.

Much of the unexploded ordnance was cleared. But not all. It was many months later when my husband’s young cousins took their cows out to graze. And that’s where my other tale begins.

 

 

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How to do an Albanian wedding: the Groom’s party

(aka: the main event)

It will be a long time before I’ll forget arriving at our wedding party. We walked up the stairs on the red carpet, the large wooden doors swung open. Rose petals were scattered on the carpet ahead of us and the wedding march blared at high volume over the speakers. We paraded around the room and then stood in front of our wedding table – lit from underneath by LED lights. It was an incredibly insane moment!

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The dancing started almost immediately while we sat on our ‘thrones’ and picked at one of multiple plates of food that were served during the course of the evening and greeted the steady stream of guests whom came to our table.

Different groups of guests were invited to take to the dance floor at different times. I was particularly proud of our overseas guests, who, after a quick impromptu lesson, managed to hold their own on the dance floor!

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There was no let up in the dancing all night – nor the incredibly loud music that accompanied it! Mid-way through the evening we went around the room and greeted every single one of the nearly 200 guests! Then members of my new family donned traditional costume to take to the dance floor.

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The other part of the evening that had me in hysterics was the cake cutting. ‘Sugar Sugar’ by The Archies was played (loudly) while we were paraded to the cake. After the cutting it was Whitney Houston’s ‘I will always love you’ screaming out while everyone cheered!

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The cake cutting signals that the evening is drawing to a close. But there were still some important dances still to come. The first was mine. I had no idea what was going on – but it seemed to be some sort of dance where I had to mime doing the laundry (perhaps an initiation into Albanian housewife-hood?).

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The final dance of the evening was Valle Shamia e Beqarit, where the groom’s handkerchief is set on fire – symbolising the end of his single life! And possibly the end of his shirt cuffs!

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We staggered out of the venue at 3am. It was one crazy party.

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How to do an Albanian wedding: the krushqit

I’ve written before about how in Albanian culture, in marrying, a woman leaves her family and joins her husband’s family. The ceremony around this is called the krushqit.

This involves the groom selecting a group of family members – from both his father’s and mother’s side of the family – to accompany him to the bride’s family home to collect her. There are some particular rules around participation in the krushqit… included should be the youngest niece and oldest nephew, a sister-in-law of the groom (whose job it is to look after the bride on her journey to the wedding party), an uncle from both sides of the family etc. One person, usually senior and well-respected, is appointed the head of the krushqit and will lead the group into the bride’s home. There are always an even number of participants – including the groom. In my hubby’s krushqit there were nine members, plus him, made a nice even ten!

The krushqit travel to the bride’s house in convoy. The cars are usually decorated and there is usually music, merriment and honking horns to accompany them.

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They are welcomed into the bride’s home by the bride’s father and enjoy some hospitality (namely, raki) before the bride is given flowers by the youngest niece and accompanied out of her room by the niece and nephew and presented to the krushqit.

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Then, after a short time, the two families leave the house. The groom’s family leave first and gather outside. The bride’s family follow – led by the father of the bride and a sister of the bride (in my case, my lovely friend filled those shoes!) arm-in-arm with now sobbing bride. It’s a solemn occasion. The bride is leaving her family. There is much wailing. (I completely failed this!).

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Outside the house the bride is handed over to the groom and a senior member of krushqit and led away to the wedding car.

It was a very unique experience and I was well-supported by a bunch of fabulous friends and family who had travelled over for the wedding. They ably played the role of my family and I don’t think we did too bad a job of pulling off a proper handover of the bride!

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How to do an Albanian wedding: the wedding photos

When we started planning our London wedding about 18 months ago we decided that even though photos didn’t rate near the top of our importance list and that we were both not that comfortable posing in front of the camera, we still wanted nice, natural, relaxed pictures that gave us a reminder of the day. (Which is what we got. We love our London wedding pics – they perfectly captured what the day felt like to us.)

This did not happen for our Albanian wedding. In fact, I don’t recall us ever having a choice about it. We initially suggested to our photographer that she turn up at our apartment a few hours before the wedding and that we would stop off at a particular beauty spot on the way to the venue for a few shots.

She said that’s not how things were done and that she would need more time. A lot more time. Turns out wedding photos seem to be the most important part of an Albanian wedding. Specifically, photos of the bride and groom. (Primarily, the bride. The groom is pretty much a prop over which the bride is instructed to attractively drape herself.)

Since we had committed to having a proper Albanian wedding, we threw ourselves in the deep end and booked our photographer for an entire day of photography on the Saturday before our Sunday wedding party.

That’s how I found myself in the salon at 6.30am on the Saturday of our wedding weekend getting all blinged up. Then, having collected the photographer and my groom, we spent the following SEVEN hours traipsing around in 30 degree temperatures posing in the most unnatural ways.

I coped. Because that’s what girls do. But there were times when I doubted my patient Albanian groom would last the distance! All the posing with flowers, hugging trees and gazing adoringly at each other rapidly got very tedious.

But later that night, at the end of the Bride’s Party, the first lot of photos were sent to me. And I have to admit to a small squeal. In amongst the weirdly awful cheesy photos are some real gems. Although I’m not sure what we’ll ever do with dozens and dozens of photos of ourselves. Albanian wedding calendar?

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(All photos by Foto Fiona)

Becoming an Albanian housewife

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