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.

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?

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.

More of Albania’s north

After our visit to Albania’s alps in July we left feeling like we hadn’t quite completed our northern Albania to-do list. This, and discovering a fantastic campsite on the shores of Lake Shkodra, persuaded us to return for a week in August.

Lake Shkodra Resort is up there with the best campsites I’ve ever stayed at. Their ‘glamping hotel’ of comfortably furnished teepees makes it very easy to indulge my love of sleeping under canvas while still enjoying a big comfy bed that doesn’t deflate overnight! The site  has a fab ‘beach’ and handy restaurant which made it very easy to roll from the tent to the sun lounger to food/beer and back again… bliss.

camping

One of the key remaining items on our to-do list was Lake Komani. The lake is one of three formed on the Drin River by a series of huge dams built in the 1970s to serve hydro-electric power stations. Lake Komani gets all the attention because it weaves between enormous peaks, narrowing to the point where you start to wonder if there’s anywhere for the boat to go. It’s considered one of the world’s great boat rides and provides some truly majestic photo opportunities!

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The three-hour trip starts at Komani and runs to the next dam at Fierza. The lake serves as a key transport route for the families that farm the land on the surrounding hills. It must take incredibly fierce souls to live there. When the boat pulled over to drop off and pick up people we could only search the hills to try to find their houses hidden high up through the trees. There are no vehicle accessible roads – only tracks for horses and donkeys. In the winter homes are frequently cut off from the outside world and without the summer tourist boats running, locals brave freezing alpine winds and catch small runabouts to the nearest shops and roads.

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After a stop for lunch at Fierza our boat took a detour, heading up a narrow branch of the lake to the Shala River. The water became a glorious turquoise colour and crystal clear. We stopped at a gorgeous bay for traditional Albanian pancakes and an ice-cold swim before returning to the wharf at Komani.

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The only blotch on an otherwise perfect Albanian experience was the shameful amount of litter that floated on the still waters of the lake. There were times when the boat had to plough through a sheet of plastic bottles, shoes, polystyrene and other rubbish. It’s not the first time I’ve seen Albania’s spectacular nature ruined by locals dumping rubbish. It’s frustrating that some people seem to have so little regard for the natural beauty of this country.

 

Albania’s Manhattan

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

Hands down the highlight of our trip was Thethi.

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

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

It’s completely stunning…

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

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

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

Becoming an Albanian housewife

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