The last time

We have established a little routine for when we arrive at the farm. I drive to the beginning of the dirt road. We unload our gear and pile it on the track. Then hubby drives the car back down the road to where we park it. I sit in the sun and wait for his return. I get an expansive view across the plateau and back towards Burrel. I can see the grapevines stretched out in perfect rows, the wheat in the fields. Sometimes there are cows grazing. I can hear birds, and cicadas, and cow bells clanging. It’s incredibly peaceful. I love it.

I feel the weight of this place. Decades of family history is held in this earth. Their lives, their deaths, their happiness, their tears. Their sweat and toil. This land has shaped the very person my husband is today.

There is only one person remaining at the farm who remembers the whole life of it. Nana is hubby’s grandfather’s brother’s wife (stick with me!). She has spent more than 60 years of her life in this place with the grapevines that grow in rows, the wheat, the cicadas, listening to the cow bells. She has seen the worst of Europe’s worst dictatorship. She has lived through years of instability as Albania has tried to find its feet. And still, the last time I was at the farm I found her in the garden. With her walking stick. Picking tomatoes. Afterwards she shuffled around to the front of the house and sat with me on the porch. We took in the view across the yard sheltered by grapevines and watched as the cows were led from the barn to graze. I regret the language barrier that prevents me from quizzing her about her life. It must be some story. She is my hero.

My biggest fear is that the farm dies. The next generation is already fleeing, attracted by opportunity and wealth in larger cities and overseas. The farm represents a time past. Maybe a lost cause? Every time we visit, my husband reminisces about the farm’s hey-day, when it was full of children and chatter. With fruit trees lining the paths and well-tended gardens. I crave finding old photos so I can capture some sense of its former beauty. I try to see it in my imagination.

I have wild dreams about what the farm could become with a bit of investment and hard work. I see the potential.

Ahh, potential.

I have commented a lot during my time here on the ‘potential’ I can see in Albania and its people. It is a country dripping in it. And this has been long understood by neighbouring countries who have, over the centuries, attempted (with varying degrees of success) to invade, charm, land-grab and rule this land of eagles. It’s been suppressed by dictatorship, stymied by unrest and poverty, and drained by mass emigration. And despite all these things, Albania still persists. It has natural beauty. It has a rich culture. It has a warm-hearted, hard-working, innovative people.

I can not wait to see what Albania will be when I come back.

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(You can see a short – low budget! – film of the journey we take to the farm here.)

A genuine, heartfelt, ‘thank you’ to everyone who has read my blog over the past couple of years and shared in my adventure. Keep in touch on Twitter at @trussia. Mirupafshim!

 

On being an Albanian housewife

I’m finding it difficult to summarise the personal highlights of the past two years. There are so many! There is nothing like throwing yourself miles out of your comfort zone for delivering very big highs and inevitably some deep lows. We’ve had them all! I’ll do my best to keep it brief… (Warning: this post  is not really at all about making byrek)

Albanian housewife best bits

  1. I am the happiest I think I’ve ever been

Which isn’t to say I’m not also anxious about the next few months settling into life in NZ… a little stressed about getting everything done before we leave in a week (!)… and sad about saying goodbye to people and places I’ve come to love deeply. But I am deeply, contentedly happy in my life.

2. Yay for two-year honeymoons!

Now please do not be under any illusions… Spending the first two years of marriage with your partner 24/7 on a wild adventure does not necessarily mean you come out the other side with the world’s most blissful relationship. We’ve had to take the rough with the smooth. But being able to see my hubby in his ‘natural environment’ and learn more about his family and culture has enriched me, and our relationship, and has certainly given me a much greater appreciation for how utterly fabulous he is. I’ve loved the time we have been able to spend together and I know that we will miss each other when we have to return to busy working lives.

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3. I have a new appreciation for ‘family’

Albanian families are definitely a whole other level of ‘tight knit’. The family is central to everything – and not just the immediate family. Second and third cousins can be considered close family. We had nearly 200 people at our wedding last year – and that was just ‘close family’! I love the respect younger generations have for older generations. I love the time people are happy to give to family, the ease at which conversation flows when the family is together. It makes me excited to return to my family in NZ after 12 years overseas.

4. I have learnt a lot from the Albanian women in my life

Albania would fall apart without its women. The women I have been privileged to spend time with here are fierce, hard-working, generous, hospitable, strong, resilient, resourceful, beautiful, loving people. I am in constant admiration of their willingness to put the needs of others before themselves. They are entirely selfless in a way that I can only aspire to be. While my world tells me I should put myself first – that I need to carve out ‘me’ time – I look at these women and I think it would probably do me better to live a life that’s a little less about me. I am going to really truly miss not having these women in my life on a daily basis.

5. I discovered I’m a little bit ‘country’

I am, truth be told, a born and bred city girl. I grew up in the ‘burbs of NZ’s largest city and then moved to London, arguably one of the world’s greatest cities. So I am quite proud to have discovered that I can pull off a passable impression of a country girl if I try hard enough! I love hanging out on the farm in my gumboots (wellies), wielding a pitchfork and hoeing the potatoes! I loved the process of nurturing our grapevines and producing some pretty awesome wine and raki. I will happily admit that I am probably a fair weather country girl and I know that should I find myself in the situation where I was to be living in the sticks full time, the gloss would probably wear off super fast. But still, drinking wine made from grapes I grew? Gotta take some credit for that!

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This is the penultimate post of this Albanian housewife blog. Some people have suggested I keep writing but for me it feels like a good place to stop. So with one week left in Albania, my next post will bid mirupafshim (goodbye).

The really bad bits

So with four weeks to go until the end of my Albanian housewife adventure, it’s about time to start whipping out those lists. The internet is totally over-populated with lists of ’15 reasons why frozen peas will change your life’ and other such wastes of internet space… here’s my contribution… starting with the bad bits.

Five really bad bits about life in Albania

  1. Paying bribes to medical staff so that you can see your dying son

This is the one thing that has made me the angriest in the time we’ve been here. Like wanting-to-throw-a-punch-angry-tears angry. Seeing a family prevented from sitting with their dying son because they couldn’t afford the bribes the medical staff were demanding made my blood boil. That paying bribes to medical staff is an accepted part of life in Albania is bad enough. It’s inhumane. And I hate that Albanians don’t challenge it.

  1. It’s the way things are in Albania *shoulder shrug*

I’m just going to throw my rubbish here by this lovely river because it’s Albania…
I’m going to leave a bribe for the vehicle inspector because it’s Albania…
I’m not going to complain about having no running water for six weeks because it’s just how things are in Albania…
I’m going to accept that a number of our elected representatives are involved in organised crime because it’s Albania…

I’ve never been much of an activist but I wish Albanians would demand more – of themselves, of their neighbours, of their elected (and un-elected) leaders. The country deserves more.

  1. Take the nearest shortcut

Last winter a new road was built behind our apartment building, turning what was a dirt track into a very convenient loop road. Several features of this new road stood out. Firstly, rather than spending time and money moving existing power poles out of the way of the new road, they were left in place and the tar seal laid around them, creating rather large obstacles in the road. And secondly, rather than carrying out proper engineering work to ensure the road didn’t fall down the hill, they just built the road and hoped for the best. Within a week of the footpath being laid it slid down the hill after heavy rain. For a country with so little money to spend, they sure seem happy to waste it doing a half-assed job that they then need to spend more money on fixing.

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  1. Why plan when you can just panic at the last minute?

No one who knows me would ever say that I am anything other than a control freak. I love to know what has happened, what is currently happening, and what is likely to happen in the future. Nothing has been tested more during my time in Albania, than this. There is a maddening spontaneity about life here which admittedly has its enjoyable elements. We’re unemployed so spontaneously deciding to run off on an adventure is one of the luxuries of our situation! But dealing with the consequences of other people failing to plan is not so fun. And because we’re the only people who seem to plan, others are surprised when we tell them that we can’t do x, y or z because we have OTHER PLANS. It’s nails-down-a-chalkboard painful to witness so much unnecessary inefficiency and wastage of time and money. So says the control freak!

  1. Being Albanian means never having to say sorry

The other day we were sat in the car at the traffic lights and a taxi just rolled straight on into the back of us. Bump. My hubby leapt out of the car to check for damage and berate the driver, who shrugged and said what’s your problem, there’s no damage. Not even a single ‘sorry’. No one ever says sorry. Ever. Queued for ages at the supermarket because the teller is on the phone gassing to their friends? Customer service representative unable to help because they don’t have the correct information? Can’t drive down the road because some bloke has decided to pull over and have a chat with his mate? Don’t be expecting a sorry!

So that’s my rant. Next time, I’ll run through the five really good bits about life in Albania. Because in amongst all that unplanned, unapologetic, short-cut taking, is the warmest, most embracing society I’ve ever had the privilege of living in.

Albania’s southeast

With the stunning landscapes of Albania’s Accursed Mountains in the north, and the coastline that runs down the west to the turquoise waters of the Riviera in the south, it’s often the east of Albania that is neglected by visitors to the country.

We neglected it too – but with two months left until we leave Albania for NZ, we’ve finally managed to tick Albania’s southeast off our Albanian bucket-list.

This region is culturally and archaeologically rich. It’s main centre is Korçë. This city has been central in the development of Albanian culture since during the time of the Ottoman rule. It’s home to the first school to teach using the Albanian language. I loved the clean, tidy public space. It felt a very welcoming city. The cathedral is stunning and well-worth popping in to visit. And we had a lovely mooch through the cobbled streets in the surrounding area.

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One of the key tourist attractions listed in Korçë is the church in Mborja, Kishe e Ristozit. We managed to find the pretty little church but it’s currently undergoing restoration (yay!) so is surrounded by scaffolding and is inaccessible (not yay!). Instead, we made the drive up the hill overlooking Korçë, to the church visible from the town. It gives amazing views over the valley.

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We stayed in Voskopojë. This small village, about a 20 min drive from Korçë, was once the largest city in the Balkans with 35,000 citizens, an art school and the first printing press in the region. This was very hard to believe standing in the sleepy village square and looking at the small collection of stone houses! It’s a very pretty little village with clean (litter-free!) streets.

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In every direction there are churches – just a few of the 24 that once stood. We visited several – the most famous being the Church of St Nicholas. (If you find it locked, ask a local and they will help you find the key holder. Alternatively, find the priest!) What a stunning church! This gorgeous gem survived Hoxha’s destruction of churches and mosques when the town ganged together and persuaded him that it was worth preserving this culturally important building. I’m so glad they made the effort. It really is glorious!

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We also made the trip south of Korçë (about 45 min on sealed roads) to another beautifully conserved village – Dardha. Nestled in amongst the mountains, the village was settled by Catholics following what seems to be quite a successful strategy of escaping the Ottomans by setting up home in a very remote and inaccessible part of the country. (Theth is another example of a village settled for this reason!) You can park at the ‘top’ of the village, near the church and meander down steep cobbled streets and past lovely stone cottages and bountiful plum trees. Apparently a number of well-known Albanian politicians and celebrities have houses here which may explain the good quality road and clean and tidy appearance of the village!

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Another big attraction of the southeast is Lake Ohrid which is shared with Macedonia. Pogradec is the main town on the Albanian side of the lake. The town is littered with beaches along its shore and boasts some great public space stretching along the lake front. But our favourite place to stop on Lake Ohrid is the pretty little village of Lin, just a few kilometres outside of Pogradec off the road heading to Elbasan. Lake Ohrid is famous for its fish – the koran in particular – and the nicest place to try this fish is sitting out over the lake at the restaurant in Lin.

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Mali i Dajtit

The best thing about our apartment is that you can walk onto our balcony and look up to the mountain of Dajti. We are the last apartment building before the mountain begins and after us its farm land, small villages and olive groves climbing up the lower slopes to the steep rock face.

Dajti watches over Tirana sprawling out over the flat land below. Its foothills mercifully prevent the urban growth from moving much further east. It’s gloriously fresh with blossom in the spring, green in the summer, orange and red in the autumn, snow-capped in the winter. We’ve come to think of it as our mountain. We have our favourite trails over the foot hills, around the lake, past abandoned tunnels built as bomb shelters during the regime.

Ten years ago the Austrians built a cable car up the mountain. The 20 minute ride provides spectacular views of the mountain (including our apartment!) and Tirana. It’s made the mountain more accessible as the road, while vastly improved, remains very potholed in parts. It’s become a favourite part of our standard itinerary for our overseas visitors.

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The Dajti Express runs from Linze. You can catch the Linze bus from the centre of Tirana. Look for the signs or ask the bus driver to tell you where to jump off the bus. It’s a steep hike from there up Rruga Shefqet Kuka to the cable car station. If you’re feeling less willing to battle public transport then a taxi from the centre of Tirana will cost you approx 700-800 lek.

It’s hard to give you solid operating times for the cable car. Generally, it seems closed on Mondays… and operates from around 9am till 10pm (earlier in the winter). The website currently seems to be closed for refurbishment!

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At the top of the cable car is a hotel, cafe, restaurant, walking trails and fantastic views over Tirana. Behind the hotel is a large grassy area where the kids can ride horses, clamber over bunkers, etc. There are also free mini-buses put on by the restaurants set up on the mountain. Our favourite, by far, is Gurra e Përrisë. The restaurant is in a gorgeous setting surrounded by forest. In the summer you can sit out under the trees. In the winter you can warm up by the log fire. The restaurant is also a trout farm and you can watch the chef catch your fish before its cooked and served.

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The mountain is very walk-able. Tracks are reasonably well-marked. I’m told it takes 3-4 hours to get to the level of the cable car. It’s another 2 hours to the summit. (Confession: we’ve only actually ever made it three-quarters of the way up to the cable car level! The full hike is definitely on our Albanian bucket-list!)

Summer heat

It’s been quiet on the blog front for the last few weeks, which reflects how quiet life has been in the heat of the summer. Summer here is relentless… day after day of blue skies and scorching temperatures. On one hand, this is perfect after 10 years of London’s brief and frequently disappointing summers. On the other hand, the heat saps my energy. Much of the day is spent hiding in doors waiting for the heat to cool. To top it all off, we have been subject to frequent water cuts. In the last week, we had running water for just two days. Eww.

In a perfect world we would have shut up our apartment and relocated to the coast for three months – but unfortunately, the un-employed Albanian housewife’s income doesn’t quite stretch to such luxuries!!

But there are a few reliable tricks to help make the summer months more enjoyable…

Get up early
Albanians are generally early risers. The business of the day is conducted first thing. I wonder if this is partly to do with the midday sun, and partly to do with the lack of certainty about how long a task will take to complete. The earlier you start a task, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to complete it before public offices close at 3pm.

Siesta
Unlike other southern European countries, there is no ‘official’ siesta in Albania. But it does happen. It’s hard to find anyone out and about in the heat of the day. Shops close. People hide indoors.

Do nothing
If taking a siesta isn’t an option, then the next best thing is to do nothing. Life becomes lethargic. Things move slowly. Time is best spent in a shady café.

Xhiro
One of my favourite Albanian traditions is ‘xhiro’. In the early evening families emerge from the shelter of their homes and promenade. In towns they will stroll down the main road (in many towns, roads are closed to cars during xhiro to make way for pedestrians). In our neighbourhood, families wander up past our apartment and into the foothills of Dajti. Grandparents, parents, kids, teenagers… everyone is out strolling. On our xhiro route, the local farmers sit on the side of the road and sell fresh produce. BBQs sit atop wheelbarrows with cobs of corn cooking in the coals. It’s like a big communal sigh of relief that the heat has abated – at least until tomorrow.

Hit the beach
While we did our summer holiday in June, most Albanians head away after Ramadan, mid-July into August. Beaches are packed. Hotels are super expensive. If a week away at the Riviera isn’t an option, then come the weekend, swarms of people head to the nearest local beach. Tirana is inland, but there are numerous beaches less than 90 minutes’ drive away. Most day-trippers rent a sun-lounger and umbrella for the day, but many erect temporary shelters out of bed sheets, umbrellas, tents to create a home-away-from-home.

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Despite the slow meander of summer, we have had some excitement with family weddings (as a guest, not the bride – phew!) and it being summer, overseas family are back in town. Yay! Now if I can just find some running water…

Summer bliss on the riviera

In my opinion, June is definitely the best month to holiday in Albania. The weather is hot and sunny – and reasonably stable. The beaches are empty. The water is warm and the hotels are cheap. What more do you need? Come August and the water and weather are still warm but the beaches are packed and the hotels pricey.

So for our early summer holiday we headed south to the Albanian Riviera. This stretch of coastline on the Ionian Sea boasts numerous perfect beaches with unbelievably crystal-clear water. Seriously good beach action!

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We based ourselves in Drymades – one of three beaches just over the Llogara Pass – Palasa, Drymades and Dhermi. Dhermi is the most developed, then Drymades. Palasa only just got a paved access road last year. It’s a gorgeous isolated beach that is, unfortunately, already earmarked for some horrible tourist development.

Drymades has a stretch of fairly inoffensive hotels and restaurants along the seafront. We were at Hotel Summer Dream… very nicely located at the far end of the beach, set against the cliffs and next to a hole in the rocks which lead to a number of gorgeous little beaches. (In June it was €35 a night for a double room incl. breakfast. This increases to €99 a night in August!)

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This being our third visit to the Riviera, we felt zero need to do touristy sightseeing. Instead, we spent our time moving between the sun-lounger and the sea (with breaks for fresh seafood from the hotel restaurant.) Bliss!

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Access to the Riviera still remains a little awkward if you don’t come with your own private transport. Minibuses are available from Tirana and would take most of the day, or it’s about 2-3 hours from Saranda (connected by ferry with Corfu).

Albania’s Riviera has long attracted tourists – local and foreign – and rightly so. There are few, if any, places left in Europe that can deliver so much gorgeous coastline for so little money. But I can’t see it remaining that way for too much longer. Unfortunately Albania isn’t known for its sympathetic coastal development.

So if you’re planning a European beach holiday this summer then this is a part of the world you should seriously consider – before it’s changed forever.

Not Durres

Like London has Brighton, Tirana has Durres. A quick 45 minute drive down a decent motorway gets you out of the city and to the sea.

The only problem with Durres is that it’s awful.

Rapid and unsympathetic over-development has created a wall of apartment buildings and hotels that loom over the beach. The port built to make the most of Durres’ natural harbour pollutes the water. And the historical significance of this former capital city is over-looked by swarms of summer visitors. You can get away with a pleasant off-season stroll but if you want a decent day trip to the beach – it’s not Durres that you want.

It’s Lalzit Bay.

The weather has been spectacular lately – and unseasonably warm. Unfortunately it’s still too early in the season for the hotel up the road from our house to have filled its swimming pool for the summer (hurry up!). So we decided to find an alternative beach option and headed out of the city on the newly re-sealed Tirana-Durres motorway towards Lalzit Bay. (Take the exit at Maminas and follow the road north).

Thanks to it being the favourite getaway of Albania’s politicians, this expansive beach is easily accessed by a surprisingly good-quality road, and is mercifully undeveloped. Hotels are not permitted! Instead, there are a couple of private villa complexes and a splattering of beach front cafe/restaurants. Unlike most of Albania’s coastline, it’s a lot of very undisturbed beachfront. Brilliant! Obviously this is Tirana’s worst-kept secret day-trip so the weekend traffic in the summer months is out of control, but seeing as we’re happily unemployed, we’ve decided this will be our summer mid-week beach getaway!

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After a very pleasant few hours on the beach we headed off to explore nearby Cape Rodoni. This gorgeous peninsula offers stunning sea views out both sides of the car. We followed the road to the gates of the park (100 lek entrance fee per car), home to the remains of a castle constructed by the Albanian hero Skanderberg in 1467. Much of the castle has now slipped into the sea. But it is well-worth the 20 minute walk (or 5 min boat ride) just for the views. It’s a shame though, that once again,  a site of historical importance is seriously blighted by litter. Sigh.

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Also in the park (by a small beach and fishing wharf) is the beautifully restored St Anthony church, a remnant of the Franciscan community. The church now owns the land (the park entrance fees help maintain it). And apparently once the summer kicks in properly, the park becomes a popular venue for summer parties!

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It was a great little day trip from Tirana. Here’s another great (non-beach-based) day trip easily taken from Tirana.

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.

Limbo

I’m not going to lie to you, the last four months haven’t been the easiest. Since returning from NZ in January we’ve been in this awful limbo… it’s been winter, we’ve been job hunting, and we’ve been seriously curbing our spending which has meant not doing very much at all.

And hanging above our heads has been this enormous question: do we stay or do we go?

Then about a month ago hubby and I had a conversation where we realised we had both quietly come to the same answer to this question: it is time to go. What we both want the most is to… settle down.

And just like that decisions were made. We’re moving to New Zealand!

Unfortunately, nothing in life is just that simple, and there is a bit of a process ahead filling out visa forms etc. But, all going well, our anticipated departure date from Albania is September/October. This gives us one final summer to enjoy everything this gorgeous country has to offer! And thanks to some clever money management on our part, we have the funds to get us through it. Plus, a couple of job opportunities have come up which a) will give us a bit more cash and b) jump-start my brain – which has seriously slipped out of work-mode after 15 months of ‘holiday’.

I’d like to say that it’s the ‘pull’ factors of New Zealand that are dragging us away, but there are definitely ‘push’ factors here which have made our decision easier. Despite its many, many strong points, and the friendships we have built here, Albania is still very much a developing country. It can be a difficult place to live. It has such a complex culture and attitude that it’s hard to understand its psyche. It fascinates me. But it’s hard to live amongst it.

So we have five months left of our Albanian journey and we are excitedly planning our Albanian bucket-list. So much to do. So little time!

Becoming an Albanian housewife