Berat: the town of a thousand windows

Berat is on the list of must-sees in every Albanian guide book. The windows of its gorgeous Ottoman houses line both sides of the Osum river and wink at each other in the sunlight. At the top of the hill sits Berat Castle, dating from the 4th century BC – and still inhabited today.

The easiest way to get a feel of the town is to head out on foot and mooch around the narrow cobbled passageways that meander between the stone houses. Below the castle is the Mangalemi neighbourhood. Facing off across the river is Gorica. On the edge of the new town are a number of historic mosques (all well sign-posted) – also worth checking out.

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The castle is pretty impressive. And it’s a slog to get to. Locals drag their cars up the hill – but its super steep and paved with very slippery cobbles. I was convinced my car would just slide back down! So we headed off early on foot, before it got too hot! It was brutal… made worse by being overtaken by small elderly women power walking up the hill carrying their shopping!

It’s well worth it. There are a number of churches in the castle, gorgeous views across the valley and more lovely stone houses. There are also a few restaurants and cafes if all that sightseeing gets a bit much.

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Look out for the giant letters burned into the hill opposite the castle. During the regime they spelt out ENVER – as in Enver Hoxha, Albania’s notorious dictator. Following the regime the letters were altered to spell out NEVER – as in never again… a poignant memorial to a devastating period of Albania’s history.

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We spent a great morning exploring the castle and then, when the sun was getting too scorching, we retreated to the air-conditioned bliss of our hotel room.

Getting to Berat is a bit of a pain in the backside. There are main roads heading to this key tourist destination but when we visited some were still very much under construction. This made for a slow, dusty, bumpy journey. I’ve heard that there hasn’t been much improvement in recent months.

We spent two nights in Berat. It felt a little like one night too many – but then we didn’t bother going to explore the outdoor adventure playground of Tomori (one of Albania’s tallest mountains) and the Osumi Canyons – all hiking, cycling, rafting madness. If that’s your bag, then Berat is a great base to travel from.

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.’

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…

 

 

 

 

More than a year in Albania?

Back at the beginning of the year I wrote a short piece on life as an expat and my move to Albania. It was published on a NZ news website and attracted over 100 comments – many were almost of the trolling kind – which totally made me laugh. One comment from a reader stuck with me. Referring to Albania, he said: “That country has a list of downsides that would take several weeks to recite.”

This annoyed me. I wondered how this person had compiled their ‘list of downsides’ and I would guarantee it wasn’t from actually, you know, living in Albania. It came across as a very ignorant comment. I mean, every country has downsides and certainly Albania’s would be longer than some others. But it’s also pretty blimmin amazing. It feels like there is something going on here… there is a sense of possibility… of the country going through a rapid transformation… of being on the precipice of something great (hopefully not a whopping great cliff).

This all came into play when hubby and I started discussing our next move. We set aside one year to live in Albania without working – without earning any money. We’re in the second half of that year now and, while there is a little bit of fat on our financial resources, being unemployed with zero income is not sustainable in the long-term (unfortunately)! We have to start considering our next move and we have to consider a number of key issues… jobs, houses, money, having kids, saving for retirement, being sensible and grown up.

And really it comes down to moving to a sensible grown-up country to buy a house, get jobs and settle down…  But as we talked, the thought of returning to that life of work work work to cover bills bills bills just really turned our stomachs. One of the attractions of moving to Albania was that we were leaving that lifestyle for something we felt would be more positive.

I love living here. I love how important ‘family’ is here. It’s more important than money, jobs – everything. (Note: this does also have downsides!) With the first world struggling to deal with ageing populations, I’m thinking that while it might be difficult financially (and physically) to be old here – you certainly would never be lonely. The elderly are embraced, cocooned, respected and cared for by their families in an amazing way.

I love how things are so local. We have our fruit shop down the road. The lady who runs it knows my husband’s cousin. The baker who makes our bread speaks English to me because he knows my Shqip (Albanian) is rubbish. The guy who runs the petrol station we frequent came to our wedding – because he’s a cousin. The butcher is a cousin of a cousin (or something like that). The guys who run the car wash say hi to us in the street. So does the man who runs the hardware store. The other day the man who sold us his car drove past – all flashing lights, tooting and waving. I have more local ‘community’ here after eight months than I had in 10 years in London. I love that.

So what if we considered Albania as something more than a one-year adventure? Change is happening rapidly here. With the hope of EU membership status proving to be a substantial carrot, the government is pushing through changes at great speed. Some people are proving to be reluctant followers when forced to pay tax, pay for utilities and generally follow the rules. But, as the giant EU bureaucratic juggernaut rolls into town, it is bringing opportunity.

It feels like, to us, that if we moved on from Albania without making the most of the opportunities – without seeing if we could sustain ourselves financially while enjoying the phenomenal lifestyle that this beautiful country affords – then we would really be missing out.

And so this becomes our goal for the next few months. Can we make Albania work – at least for another couple of years – before caving in to a sensible life in the first world?

Becoming an Albanian housewife

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