Spring

It’s one of those things, isn’t it, that the time between making a decision to move on from something, and the actual moving on from it, is the killer… it feels that nothing about where you are now is good and everything about where you will be soon is dreamy. And it’s a drag.

And boy have we been feeling that lately!

Not that everything is bad, I mean it’s Albania in the spring. It’s gorgeous blossoms and sunshine and green – it’s the best season! But we have really been experiencing the frustrations of living here. And it’s been hard to pull ourselves out of it!

Lots of people say there are bad things about living here. People drink coffee all day and complain about the lack of jobs, the lack of money, the poor quality of the politicians, about Albania’s multitude of problems. And we sit in coffee shops with friends and theorise about how the biggest problem with Albania is Albanians. We sit with the arrogance of outsiders and suggest that the hangover of a harsh dictatorship may not excuse, but does explain, the pervading culture within the country. But mostly we balk at the size of the problem. I mean, where do you even start with a country like Albania?

Pretty much the best thing we’ve done in the past few months has been investing some time at the farm working on the grapes. My husband’s family have three fields, two of which are mostly grapes which have been pretty much untouched since his parents moved to the nearby town 10 years ago.

So back in February in the deep of winter we spent five days pruning. I learnt how to prune a vine to encourage growth not just for this summer, but in preparation for the summer after. I learnt that it’s all ‘less vine more grape’. Be cruel to be kind. And all of those clichés. For most of the time it seemed pointless. The vines seemed completely dead. We pulled out a lot of them. It was hard physical work and very satisfying. I love the farm so much and to feel like I could actively, positively contribute to such a special place was rewarding but we left two fields of stumpy looking vines and to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much.

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Before the pruning began

So this month we finally made it back to the farm. I said earlier that spring is the best season, and it really looks its best at the farm. I was so excited to see the grapes. All those dead stumps had been overtaken by new branches and leaves – and baby grapes!

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Baby grapes!

They looked amazing! And following the rule of ‘less vine more grape’ we had to spend another couple of days cutting them back again. All those poor little branches that had worked so hard to grow out of the dead stump ended up as pig fodder! The crop is looking good… there is a lot of fruit there… I can’t wait to see it grow and to be there at harvest time to pick our grapes and make us some wine!

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Sometimes Albania feels a little like the fields of dead stumps. Just a lot of not very much and some serious scepticism that it will ever be something else. My hope of growth comes from seeing the impressive level of innovation amongst younger Albanians. In the absence of opportunity, the best of Albania are those out there making their own opportunities. But it’s hard work for them. And many are actively looking to leave – through whatever means they can find. I recently saw published figures from the Home Office in the UK that Albania is 5th in the list of nationalities applying for asylum in the UK.

But then, as a friend said to me this morning, Albania has progressed further in the last 20 years than any other country in Europe. And its worth remembering that whenever it all gets a bit much.

Spring is the best season in Albania and with local elections only weeks away I can only hope that Albanians start looking for leaders who are going to start encouraging spring growth.

The stone city

Things have been pretty quiet on the blog front in the past few weeks… it’s the tail end of winter and aside from a week at the farm pruning the grapes, we’ve not been up to much. So I thought that with the weather warming up, you lot will be starting to plan your summer holidays… so it’s about time I did a round-up of some of the Albanian destinations we’ve enjoyed – just in case you’re planning on heading our way!

Gjirokastra

Often over-shadowed in the tour books by nearby Berat, this UNESCO World Heritage Site actually wins the race for me. The old town in southern Albania tumbles down the hill from the enormous castle perched on top. Car tyres and tourists slide on smooth cobbles on the steep streets. The town is full of beautifully restored Ottoman buildings. Seriously atmospheric!

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Gjirokastra is also the home town of two of Albania’s famous sons – author Ismail Kadare, and perhaps remembered less fondly, the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha.

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We loved visiting Gjirokastra’s castle (tickets: 200 lek). It was worth the hard slog up the hill. It’s huge vaulted chambers house a strange collection of enemy artillery seized during World War 2. Parts of the castle were also used as a prison up until 1971. Now it houses the National Armaments Museum. Outside are the remnants of a US airforce spy plane shot down in 1957 and great views across the valley.

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It’s worth wandering the town to check out the beautiful Ottoman houses. A few can be explored such as Zekate House and Skenduli House. The Skenduli House is currently being restored. There are opportunities to participate in the restoration work.

In the centre of town is the Bazaar – full of small shops featuring local arts and crafts – definitely worth a wander just to enjoy the vibe.

What’s nearby
The Blue Eye (Syri i Kaltër) is not far off the main road from Gjirokastra to Saranda and is well sign-posted. It’s a underwater spring that bubbles up to the surface creating a deep blue pool. Its stunning and well worth the trip.

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The Ottoman bridge at Bënja is amazing – but difficult to get to due to the poor condition of the road. Thermal springs turn the river white, and give it a sulphuric perfume!

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Where we stayed
We stayed at Kotoni B&B in one of Gjirokastra’s gorgeous old buildings. The rooms are all decorated traditionally and our hosts were super welcoming.

Further reading!
Ismail Kadare’s novel Chronicle in Stone is one of my favourite books ever – and not just because it’s about Gjirokastra. It’s a great story and beautifully written. I recommend it – even if you’re not planning on travelling to Albania!

Four seasons

Today marks one year since my arrival in Albania and with it, the passing of four seasons …

Winter

We arrive here in late winter… brown earth, snow-capped mountains and rain, rain and more rain. In winter I settle into my new home, meet my new family and learn to drive on the pot-holed chaotic roads. I learn to make byrek. We battle infuriating bureaucracy and spend many wet mornings queuing for paperwork. We network (Albanian’s are great at networking) and I secure some volunteer work with a local NGO. I get my first glimpse of the farm in all its isolated glory and fall in love with Albania’s gorgeous countryside.

What’s growing
Hudhër (garlic)
A rare splash of green in the fields in otherwise brown earth. People eat large amounts of raw garlic. So the smell of raw garlic is etched into my nostrils. It is a rare green vege in a winter of cabbage and potatoes.

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Spring

Spring arrives quickly. The country erupts into gorgeous fresh greens and the sparkling yellow of the mimosa. The weather improves and suddenly it’s all sunshine and blue skies. And beers on the balcony. We spend spring planning and organising for the summer ahead – the wedding, the holiday, the road trip. We bully the bureaucrats into giving my hubby’s cousin a new leg.

What’s growing
Kastravec (cucumber)
I’ve never tasted such deliciousness. So fresh. So much flavour. The first hint of summer’s bounty!

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Summer

Summer is a heady season for us in Albania. It is full of life, food, dancing… We have family and friends join us for our manic Albanian wedding. We show off our new country at its best. All blue skies and crystal clear waters. Then the country starts to tan in the burning sun and the only way to survive it is to hide. We wake early when it is still cool, and rush around to get the chores of the day completed before midday. Then, when the sun reaches its high point, we shelter on the sofa… the fan running on high… and hide until the day cools and the whole neighbourhood comes out to ‘xhiro’… the daily promenade of families and friends.

What’s growing
Shalqi (watermelon)
So many of them… piled up into small mountains along the edge of the road. And so sweet and refreshing.

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Autumn

It’s slow to arrive. It’s like the summer is reluctant to leave. But the sun has done its job and the fields are ready to harvest. We head to the farm to pick the grapes. Mats are laid out on the road where corn dries – ready to be turned into flour. We plan and prepare for our NZ adventure. We ponder our next steps.

What’s growing
Rrush (grapes)
The vines at the farm are heavy with their crop. We cut bunches of plump fruit and load them into baskets for the donkey to carry down to the house to be made into wine.

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The last year has quite simply been the best decision we could have made and our greatest adventure.

Homecoming

In my head I have daydreams of sunshine and beaches – of good times with family and friends – of new places and memories with my hubby… it is the daydream of my two months in NZ.

Anyone who knows me well, knows I have previously returned from trips to my homeland more than a little ambivalent about the thought of returning there to live. But this time was different. It was two months of seeing the settled, orderly domestic bliss that we could have in the future. This wasn’t helped by being at ‘that’ stage of life when visits with friends consisted of ‘here is my new house and here are my new children’ – all of which was amazing. The houses were large, airy, well-positioned, with gardens and ‘lifestyle’. The children, without fail, were gorgeous, intelligent, amusing little miniatures of my much-loved friends. (You all make such lovely kiddies! And I am so proud of you for the happiness you create for yourselves!)

I heard a discussion on the radio about the value of giving gifts for Christmas vs. giving ‘experiences’. There was talk about how ‘experiences’ lasted much longer than ‘things’. But oh, in my two months of sampling the domestic bliss that my friends enjoy, oh, how I want things! This came rushing home to me, literally, when we arrived back at our apartment in Tirana. The apartment with four cups, six knives, six forks, six chairs, six plates and one ancient TV. Our recent investment has definitely been in ‘experience’ over ‘things’. All well and good but I still crave things. I crave things so bad. I bought a cushion for 150 lek to make myself feel better.

At the end of the day, what is making my transition back to life in Tirana a challenge is fear. It’s not an unfamiliar fear. I felt it when I left university and had to figure out how to make my own life. I felt it when I packed up my life in NZ for an unknown one in London. And again when we moved to Tirana a year ago. And I knew that when I returned here from NZ that fear was waiting for me.

So we are back to face the fear! I felt the reassuring pang of homecoming as the plane floated past the mountains into Tirana. The traffic madness felt familiar. I recognised snatches of conversation. Our local shopkeeper was delighted to see us. The guy from the car wash stopped to say hello. We had joyful reunions with family and friends. We have been missed in our absence. And I think knowing you are missed makes a place feel like home.

We face some real challenges in finding employment. To say the current job market is difficult is an understatement and it has become abundantly clear that it’s not going to be a matter of responding to a job ad. We’re going to have to create our own jobs and this pushes me well out of my comfort zone.  Wish me luck!

NZ vs Albania – a tourist’s comparison

Happy New Year! We’re rapidly coming to the end of our two months in NZ. It’s been a precious time with family and friends – and it’s been amazing being a tourist in the country I grew up in! We’re fortunate to have friends and family scattered all over the country so we’ve pulled in all sorts of favours and enjoyed all the beauty NZ has to offer.

Central Auckland
Central Auckland

Having spent most of the past year being a tourist, it’s been interesting to compare the good, bad and ugly between NZ and Albania’s approach to tourism. NZ is arguably a world leader in this area and Albania is definitely the new kid on the block – still a little rough around the edges, but with loads of potential. Here’s a few things I’ve noticed…

Clean and green
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… Albania has got to sort out its litter problem. Being in NZ’s pristine countryside has highlighted for me again how significantly Albania’s landscapes are spoiled by the litter that lies everywhere. Kiwi’s take pride in keeping their country clean. There is so much to be proud of in Albania and Albanians could do with taking some pride in their country.

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Cape Reinga

Connectivity
Seriously NZ, what’s with the terrible wifi access? How can hotels still get away with charging so much for wifi? Astonishingly, Albania totally wins this one. Free wifi is readily available – almost everywhere. And I could get a 3G network in the depths of the Theth valley (arguably one of the remotest areas of Europe) yet have no network service whatsoever in large areas of not-that-rural NZ.

To be fair, why would you want an internet connection when you've got these views?! (Lake Wanaka)
To be fair, why would you want an internet connection when you’ve got these views?! (Lake Wanaka)

Get online
Ironically, while Albania has great wifi access, there are relatively few tourism-related businesses online. These days, tourists book everything online. If you don’t have an online presence you will not be noticed. This was never more obvious than when we were in Thethi. The guest house we stayed in was the only one in the area offering online booking – and it was noticeably busier than any other accommodation provider in the entire valley. If Albania is going to become the tourism hotspot it deserves, and desires, to be, its tourism providers are going to have to get online.

Leave it be
I have often said that one of the things I love most about NZ is how we interact with the nature around us. Other countries build all over their areas of outstanding natural beauty… NZ just lets it be. It works around nature, not over it. Albania is struggling with this at the moment and is attempting to undo some bad development along the coastline. But I worry that if the coming tourism boom isn’t properly managed, Albania risks loosing a significant part of what makes it so special.

Franz Josef glacier
Franz Josef glacier

Stop the eye-rolling
New Zealanders are very friendly – but they don’t tend to suffer fools. There is a straightforward, brusque-ness about much of NZ’s customer service which, frankly, can feel like being reprimanded by your mum. There’s much to be admired in this no-nonsense attitude but I feel perhaps there’s something to be learned from the Albanian approach to hospitality. There have been times when I’ve felt a little sorry for tourists bumping up against the Kiwi form of customer service. They can look a little stunned – like they didn’t expect to get the eye-roll and ‘are you that stupid’ reaction to what they felt was a reasonable question.

Make it easy to get around
Having grown up with NZ’s love for the motor vehicle, in my mind there was no way you could get around NZ without your own car. And to be fair, there’s no denying that it makes life so much easier and we have been so fortunate to have had the loan of a friend’s car for our time here. Despite this, it has been great to see (and experience) how much easier it has become to get around NZ sans private vehicle. And Albania really needs to crack this if its to successfully become a tourist hotspot. Currently visitors to Albania have the option of either renting a car and risking their lives on the roads, or gaining enough language skills to enable them to use the somewhat anarchic public transport system of furgons and mini-buses. In fact, it was only in the last few months that Albania finally got a published bus timetable.

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So with less than three weeks so go in NZ, we are spending as much time as we can with family and friends. I can say genuinely that I’ve enjoyed my visit home more than any other visit I’ve had before. It has been so much fun to see NZ through my hubby’s eyes. And I’ve loved those moments when the car has climbed over the crest of another hill, or crawled around a sharp corner, and an entire new picture-postcard vista has unfurled before us and my hubby utters an awestruck ‘WOW!’. Priceless!

The end of the beginning

So as you read this we will be in New Zealand! It’s a very exciting trip for us. It’s hubby’s first visit to my homeland and we have two months of important family events and sightseeing ahead of us.

A few days ago on our last day at the farm, we were sat outside in the late autumn sun cooking corn on the fire and drinking the new raki. All four generations of us. The past and the future hanging out together. And I thought: this is the memory I will take with me. The easy-going, live-in-the-moment moments of life on the farm.

A year-long holiday might look, from the outside, like one big party. But its been also been normal ‘life’ and we’ve had our fair share of difficulties and challenges this year. It’s also been a big risk. More than one person has commented on our level of crazy to give up a good lifestyle and income in London for unemployment in a developing country. They’re kind of right. But for many reasons, we’ve had little choice but to take the risk. And so this year has been about making the most of it.

I am anxious about our return here in January because then the holiday will be well and truly over. We will need to find jobs in a difficult economy. All the locals say that Albania is brilliant if you have the money, but it’s very very hard if you don’t. I’ve had a few nibbles from people who have been interested in the concept of paying me money in exchange for my knowledge and experience, but as yet no one has stumped up with a contract (and cash)!

I have to say an enormous thank you to my hubby’s family who have embraced the foreign ‘nusja’ (bride). They have been patient and gracious as I’ve navigated Albania’s complex family culture. And they’ve made Albania feel like a safe place to fall.

You might be lucky to get a few blog posts from me over the next couple of months. I want to stay in touch while we’re in NZ – because I’ve really loved having so many people tagging along for my Albanian adventure and I definitely don’t want you to go away while we’re on a holiday from our holiday! I’ll be back to share some more Albanian housewife adventures…

Remembering

It became very apparent when I first met my husband that we had very different upbringings from each other. I grew up in peaceful middle-class New Zealand where the greatest hardship I suffered was not having steak for a few months when my Dad didn’t have a job. My husband grew up in Hoxha’s Albania. Enver Hoxha’s Communist regime was the harshest in Europe. The country completely cut itself off from the outside world (becoming the North Korea of Europe), even falling out with Russia and China. Albanians struggled through decades of poverty and starvation, finally emerging from the regime in 1992.

So you can imagine our childhood stories differ somewhat!

I love hearing hubby’s stories. I have been to many of the places he talks about but even so I have no way of understanding the way he describes life, and the conditions he grew up with. It all seems like something out of a movie.

He describes midnight escapades with his father and brothers to the neighbouring army base. Using roast chicken, wine and raki to bribe the soldiers to turn their backs while they took much-needed timber and supplies for the farm.

The first time he tried chocolate he was eight years old. A family friend gave him a large bar of chocolate. It was like gold. He had a small taste then nursed the chocolate in his shirt pocket on the long walk back to the farm. By the time he got home to share the chocolate with his brothers it was melted mush.

He tells me stories about what he was required to learn at school – about the wealth and happiness of Hoxha’s regime and corrupt, abject poverty of the West (apparently on the news each night they would report how many people had apparently died of starvation in America that day). How he would bribe teachers with promises of raki in order to help his friends pass the class.

Each family only had a small area of land to grow crops for themselves and everything else produced by the farm was collected by the State for distribution. Once, his father ended up in court because his mischievous sons had cut into dozens of the State’s watermelons looking for ripe ones to snack on. The town rallied round and convinced the local Communist party member that it had in fact been wolves who had cut square holes into the bottom of the watermelons, thereby ruining the crop! My father in law got away with it. But the State ended up fining the local party member for being so stupid to believe the ruse.

The stories are often funny and portray a time when people were part of close-knit families and strong communities who looked out for each other and helped each other survive.

But there is a lot left unsaid. The story-telling sessions always end with my husband sighing deeply: ‘People were starving. It was so bad it’s not worth remembering.’

Becoming an Albanian housewife

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