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.

P1030604
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.

P1030577

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!