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Blood and hospitality

There are two aspects of life in Albania that totally stand out for me. First, the jaw-dropping landscapes and second, the overwhelming here-have-the-shirt-off-my-back-and-my-last-malteser hospitality.

This generous, and at times overwhelming, hospitality is deeply ingrained. It’s why Albanian housewives keep their homes so immaculately spic and span and always have food in the cupboard. Should a weary traveller turn up on the doorstep, they will have everything they need.

This hospitable culture is due somewhat to the kanun, Albania’s traditional laws which evolved over hundreds of years as a way of maintaining a form of law and order, particularly in the isolated communities in the mountainous north of Albania.

There are four pillars of the kanun: honour, hospitality, right conduct and kin loyalty, and it covers all areas of life including family, property, work and punishments for crimes.

Its authority was strong right through the period of Ottoman rule but weakened during the strict Communist regime. After the fall of Communism, the kanun made a bit of a comeback – but with some rules losing popularity. For example, it is no longer usual to give a groom a bullet on the occasion of his marriage – to be used on the wife if there is any infidelity on her part!

However, one disturbing cultural practice still in existence (albeit on a small scale) is the practice of blood feuds. The kanun sets out rules regarding avenging the murder of a blood relative which gives the aggrieved family the right to avenge the death. This can result in blood feuds lasting decades.

There are rules to follow in the conflict. Only the men of the family are supposedly targeted – excluding priests. (Unfortunately with the revival of the kanun, some rules were bastardised and it isn’t unheard of for boys younger than 15 to become victims of the blood feud.) And the family home cannot be violated. This means that any male blood relative of the offender will go into a self-imposed house arrest immediately following the killing. This can last for years while peace between the two families is negotiated or the death is avenged when someone else is killed. Then the coin flips and the men of the other family will go into hiding. It can all result in many deaths and families being ‘locked in’ for years – their sons unable to go to school and the women of the family struggling to earn enough money to support everyone.

(Another effect of this practice is that all the men in a family can be wiped out. When this happens, it has been known for a woman in the family to take on the role of a man. These ‘sworn virgins’ wear men’s clothing and carry out the man’s role in the family. This is a very rare practice nowadays and there are very few ‘sworn virgins’ left in Albania.)

It is estimated that there are still more than 1000 families in Albania currently ‘locked in’ due to blood feuds. NGOs and charities work hard to negotiate forgiveness between the parties but the process is delicate and often fails.

If you are interested in finding out more about this practice, iTunes has a great contemporary Albanian film ‘Forgiveness of Blood’ available for download (with English subtitles). Or this little documentary gives a great overview of the issue.

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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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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)

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

With oodles of tradition and celebration, weddings in Albania are on a whole new level of madness.

We were not able to tick all the boxes in our Albanian wedding – it just doesn’t work when the bride is from overseas, rather than from the neighbouring village – but we tried to stick as close as possible to the real thing.

Weddings traditionally lasted a whole week with days of dancing, exchanging gifts and celebrating in the days leading up to the main event. Modern life makes this more difficult so these days weddings commonly last two days. The Bride’s family host her party (for Catholic families, this is usually a Saturday) the day before the Groom’s party (for Catholic families, this is usually a Sunday).

Usually the Groom and his family do not attend all of the Bride’s wedding party. A small group will turn up part way through the evening and stay for an hour or so.

Seeing as my family are all overseas, and 90% of my friends in Albania are cousins of my husband, my fear was the Bride’s party would have been a little low on attendance! However, we did have a wonderful bunch of friends and family travelling from NZ, UK and Germany. Amazing! So Saturday night we hosted a dinner party and blended our close family and friends – more in the style of a rehearsal dinner.

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Normally the Bride is also glammed up in one of several wedding dresses hired for the weekend. I only had the one wedding dress, bought over from London so decided to opt for something a little simpler instead!

So about 40 of us gathered for a relaxed meal under grapevines. We feasted, drank and danced. It was so cool to see my non-Albanian friends mix and mingle with my new family. It was the perfect way to ease into the madness that lay ahead on Sunday.

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How to do an Albanian wedding: The wedding favour

Albanian wedding are all about the sparkles, frills and glitter. It’s the wedding nine-year-old girls dream of – all Cinderella and fairy tale princess.

So while it is quite possibly going to be the polar-opposite of our London wedding last October, it is, nevertheless going to be quite the occasion.

So, here’s the how-to for an essential part of Albanian wedding sparkle – the wedding favour.

(Think of me while you read – I’ll be all dolled up and dancing round in circles!)

Ingredients:

  • 200 x ivory bags with ribbon drawstrings and glitter dots stuck all over them
  • 200 x little red roses made out of some sort of wetsuit material with green paper leaves
  • 200 x individually-wrapped pieces of faux Turkish delight
  • 200 x white sugared almonds
  • 200 x pink sugared almonds

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Place one piece of faux Turkish delight, one pink sugared almond and one white sugared almond into the middle of one ivory drawstring bag.

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Grab the strings, pull, realise you’ve grabbed the same string and the bag ain’t going nowhere. Find the other string and pull drawstrings in opposing directions, bringing the edges together.

Tie strings in a bow. It’s fiddly.

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Take one wetsuit fabric rose and twist the wire around the neck of the bag. Arrange to hide any messiness.

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Now make the other 199.

Becoming an Albanian housewife

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