Category Archives: Farm life

The last time

We have established a little routine for when we arrive at the farm. I drive to the beginning of the dirt road. We unload our gear and pile it on the track. Then hubby drives the car back down the road to where we park it. I sit in the sun and wait for his return. I get an expansive view across the plateau and back towards Burrel. I can see the grapevines stretched out in perfect rows, the wheat in the fields. Sometimes there are cows grazing. I can hear birds, and cicadas, and cow bells clanging. It’s incredibly peaceful. I love it.

I feel the weight of this place. Decades of family history is held in this earth. Their lives, their deaths, their happiness, their tears. Their sweat and toil. This land has shaped the very person my husband is today.

There is only one person remaining at the farm who remembers the whole life of it. Nana is hubby’s grandfather’s brother’s wife (stick with me!). She has spent more than 60 years of her life in this place with the grapevines that grow in rows, the wheat, the cicadas, listening to the cow bells. She has seen the worst of Europe’s worst dictatorship. She has lived through years of instability as Albania has tried to find its feet. And still, the last time I was at the farm I found her in the garden. With her walking stick. Picking tomatoes. Afterwards she shuffled around to the front of the house and sat with me on the porch. We took in the view across the yard sheltered by grapevines and watched as the cows were led from the barn to graze. I regret the language barrier that prevents me from quizzing her about her life. It must be some story. She is my hero.

My biggest fear is that the farm dies. The next generation is already fleeing, attracted by opportunity and wealth in larger cities and overseas. The farm represents a time past. Maybe a lost cause? Every time we visit, my husband reminisces about the farm’s hey-day, when it was full of children and chatter. With fruit trees lining the paths and well-tended gardens. I crave finding old photos so I can capture some sense of its former beauty. I try to see it in my imagination.

I have wild dreams about what the farm could become with a bit of investment and hard work. I see the potential.

Ahh, potential.

I have commented a lot during my time here on the ‘potential’ I can see in Albania and its people. It is a country dripping in it. And this has been long understood by neighbouring countries who have, over the centuries, attempted (with varying degrees of success) to invade, charm, land-grab and rule this land of eagles. It’s been suppressed by dictatorship, stymied by unrest and poverty, and drained by mass emigration. And despite all these things, Albania still persists. It has natural beauty. It has a rich culture. It has a warm-hearted, hard-working, innovative people.

I can not wait to see what Albania will be when I come back.

image

(You can see a short – low budget! – film of the journey we take to the farm here.)

A genuine, heartfelt, ‘thank you’ to everyone who has read my blog over the past couple of years and shared in my adventure. Keep in touch on Twitter at @trussia. Mirupafshim!

 

Harvest

Ever since we pruned the grapevines back in February I have anticipated our harvest! It was always going to be a bit of a gamble whether or not we’d get much fruit. The vines had been neglected for many years and even if we managed to coax some life out of them, we then had the weather gods to contend with. Would we get enough rain to keep our grapes going? Would a freak hail storm ruin the crop?

But finally it is time to harvest! And yay – we have some grapes to harvest!

Sept_2015 132

Sept_2015 193

As with everything on the farm, this is a manual job – best achieved by team effort. It involves hand picking the grapes into buckets and loading them onto the donkey to go back to the house for crushing.

Many years ago hubby’s dad built a wooden, hand driven, grape crusher! It basically achieves the same thing as a woman in bare feet stomping on grapes in a barrel and is marginally less messy. The grapes are fed into the crusher by the bucket load… scooped in leaves, twigs, bugs and all. Once crushed the grapes are poured into 200 litre drums and sealed. The mulch will be stirred daily for the next few weeks while it ferments.

Sept_2015 164

Sept_2015 179

Sept_2015 200

The best grapes are set aside for wine. The rest are used for raki. In a few weeks the wine barrels will be opened and the liquid will be siphoned off from the mulch and put in smaller barrels. And that’s it… nothing else it added… that’s the wine… and it won’t last the year before it’s drunk. Village wine is not left to age!

In a few weeks we’ll be back at the farm to distil the barrels of raki grapes over a log fire… the resulting clear alcohol is the firewater that keeps Albania turning!

This whole process has been so satisfying! I’ve really enjoyed the manual labour – working out in the sun in the gorgeous Albanian countryside. I’ve enjoyed learning the process and, for someone who has never managed to keep even a house plant alive, it’s been rewarding to have successfully contributed to the production of an entire crop of grapes! With any luck we’ll get to taste the results of our hard work before we leave for New Zealand in a little over a month.

Sept_2015 184

October 2014 071

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.

Feb_2015 097
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!

May_2014 049
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!

May_2014 032

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.

The end of the beginning

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…

The family farm

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.

photo A

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.

Feb 2014 244

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.

Feb 2014 209

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.

Feb 2014 230

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.

Feb 2014 201

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.