Category Archives: Culture

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 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.

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!

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.’