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).

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The really good bits

As promised, after last week’s list of really bad bits, here is my list of the best bits. It’s fair to note that this list doesn’t necessarily include my absolute favourite aspects of being on permanent holiday for nearly two years. More on that later, in the final posts from the Albanian housewife…

Five really good bits about living in Albania

1. Good old-fashioned community

There’s an old man who lives in our apartment building. His son works for the company that built our building. And so the old man has the job of just keeping an eye on things. A geriatric security guard. He’s a lovely bloke who stops to joke with us every time we see him. He says he feels like we’re his own children. And he wishes that we would soon have a son. We see him pretty much every day.

We also see our neighbour – a very elderly and slightly mad lady who resolutely continues to chat away to me in Albanian. And I smile and nod. There’s a bloke who I frequently share the lift with when he arrives home from work to his young family. He always takes the opportunity to practice his English on me. And every summer evening, when the heat cools, the residents of our building head outside, sit around on concrete walls and catch up on the news of the day with their neighbours while the kids play football on the makeshift pitch with goal posts marked out by plastic bottles.

I love the sense of community. I love that should I ever get into trouble and my hubby isn’t around, that there are at least half a dozen people I could find in five minutes who would drop everything to help me out. I hope hope hope that as Albania continues to go through rapid change, that this precious part of Albanian life is preserved and celebrated!

2. Food glorious food

Tomatoes that taste like tomatoes. Crisp cucumbers. Juicy watermelons. The most incredible nectarines, cherries and apples. Fresh-from-the-sea grilled fish… oh lordy I’m going to miss the food! Seriously, the food is amazing. Simple. Fresh. Unprocessed. Full of flavour. And stupidly cheap.

A few weeks back we paid a visit to Mrizi i Zanave, an acclaimed slow-food restaurant in the countryside less than two hours north of Tirana. We had a superb, gourmet meal. The type you talk about for years to come. The bill came to £30 for four people. It felt like we were ripping them off. Seriously, it’s nearly impossible to have a bad meal in this country.

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3. Glorious landscapes

If you’ve been a long-time reader of this blog, I’m sure you’ve already seen how gorgeous this country is. Truly, it is a gem. It is no surprise to me that Albania is becoming an increasingly popular holiday destination for travellers looking for something different and authentic in an increasingly homogenised world. Albania’s got it. It’s just drop-dead gorgeous. And for six to seven months of the year the weather is brilliant.

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4. It’s dirt cheap

We went out for dinner the other night for our wedding anniversary. Turns out it was the most expensive meal we’ve had since we’ve been in Albania (it was pretty good too) and it came to a whopping £35. Our monthly rent for our two bedroom apartment is 10% of what we paid in London. A pint of beer is about £1. If it weren’t for these amazing prices we never would have been able to afford to stay here so long.

5. Cheerful anarchy

After spending the last 10 years in the UK where increasingly we are ‘nudged’ into living in a way that causes the least amount of ‘offence’, and in anticipation of moving to NZ which is becoming almost puritanical, I have actually really enjoyed living in a society that really doesn’t care what you do. I mean clearly this has resulted in some issues (see my previous post) but genuinely it feels different to live somewhere where you can kind of almost get away with anything! (Please do not misunderstand – I don’t want to encourage criminal acts!) It’s very liberating!

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There’s probably only one list left to do. Next week, my Albanian housewife highlights…

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.