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…
One late summer’s day, about 13 years ago, my husband was working with his brother and father in their carpentry workshop in Burrel when they heard a massive explosion that shook the building. Across the valley the usual view they had of their farm amongst the trees was obscured by an enormous plume of smoke (my husband described it like the mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion).
They ran into the centre of town to find out what was going on but it wasn’t until many days later that they learnt the full story – that a man living on the land of a former military base at the mouth of the valley had been using a metal grinder, the sparks from which hit the weapons storage area igniting a fire, creating a massive explosion and sending missiles firing across the valley and the flat land.
People ran for their lives, sheltering wherever they could. At the farm the three families, and neighbours, gathered in two rooms that were somewhat protected by concrete roofs.
Leaving his brother in town, my husband went with his father and found a furgon (van) driver who was heading out past the road to the farm to check on his own family. They sped off, persuading the army officers now blocking the road to let them past. The smoke was making it difficult to see the road and there were still missiles firing off in all directions.
The walk from the main road to the farm was desolate – there was absolutely no one outside. My husband and his father were fully expecting to find their family dead. But when they made it to the farm a quick head count confirmed all were safe and sound. At midnight they ventured out to survey the damage to the houses closest to the weapons depot.
Over the next few days the area was swarming with police and army personnel searching the area for damage and bodies. It was nine days after the weapons depot exploded that a trail of ants led searchers to dig down through the ruins of the house on the military base and they found the man with his grinder buried deep under the rubble and burnt almost beyond recognition.
Walking the land was dangerous in the days and months following as there was unexploded ordnance covering the whole area. Searches and clean ups were tentatively carried out – before taking every footstep the ground was closely examined.
Much of the unexploded ordnance was cleared. But not all. It was many months later when my husband’s young cousins took their cows out to graze. And that’s where my other tale begins.
Knowing our Albanian wedding would be big, manic with a lot of frills, we were very keen to have a small pause before the madness. The idea that we could have a small wedding blessing in the church built by hubby’s father in the village he grew up in was completely blissfully perfect for us.
So last weekend we took my parents (who had made the looong journey from NZ) and a close friend on the spectacular drive to the family farm. The highlight of our visit was the wedding blessing. On Saturday afternoon, in baking 30-something heat, we got dressed in our finery, put on our walking shoes and hiked over the hills and through the fields to the village church, 45 minutes away. We picked roses from bushes rambling along the side of the road and made up some sort of a posy. We sat under the trees outside the church while preparations were made. And we took the obligatory family pics. At the allotted time we traipsed into the church and took our seats.
The church is beautiful inside: cool and calm, peaceful with its exposed brick walls and wooden ceiling.
The priest led a short blessing in Albanian and then we filed outside into the sun and stood on the steps for photos before heading back to the farm for food and drinks.
It was everything we wanted.
A part of our big plan for this year is to spend time on the farm where hubby grew up and sort out the farm house which has been sadly neglected since his parents moved away. The farm house is part of a ‘homestead’ of three homes – two of which are occupied by relatives – built by hubby’s grandfather a long long time ago. It’s situated about a 20 minute drive from the town of Burrel – a 90 minute drive northeast of Tirana through a stunning landscape of mountains and lakes.
The site of the farm was chosen for its source of spring water which still feeds the site today. The main crop is grapes (for making wine and raki). Animals are also kept for food and for sale at the market – namely pigs and chickens and cows. There is also a donkey, the work ‘horse’ of the farm. He’s essential for collecting key supplies from the main road during winter when the road down to the farm is inaccessible by car due to the high rainfall reducing it to nothing more than a long stretch of bog.
We decided before we left London that come the spring we would relocate out to the farm and put some work in to making the childhood home habitable again so our visit over the last few days was partly to check out the amount of work involved – but mostly, a chance for me to be welcomed into the family and eat the pig killed to celebrate my arrival.
What an incredible place it is… and what amazing souls who not only survive in the remoteness but have made a proper home. And what a welcome!
The pig was BBQ’d outside on the lawn while inside the wood burner cooked byrek and the kitchen was filled with salad and olives, cheese, and yummy cake. We ate until we were going to burst and then were told to eat more! The homemade wine was delicious and there were frequent toasts (gezuar!) made with raki retrieved from an enormous barrel.
I was well out of my comfort zone and really felt the isolation of the place. It made me appreciate the absolute luxury I grew up in and appreciate the simplicity of not having ‘stuff’ around to complicate life.
Needless to say, we have a challenge ahead. The farm house is not in as good a state as we had expected (and our expectations were low). There’s a lot of work to do. And I had to use some imagination to picture how it must look in the spring and summer when the grapevines grow to form a luxurious green canopy that spreads out from the house.
I think we’re up for it though. And now that our Albanian wedding venue is all booked in, we have some head space to start planning what we’re going to do to revive the family home.