Category Archives: Housewife

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.

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(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!

 

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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).

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.

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!

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 cost of it

In less than a month we leave Albania for two months in New Zealand. This is SUPER EXCITING for many many reasons… but it also means that we’re coming close to the end of our year of blissful constant holiday! We’ve been here for nine months now and when we return in mid-January it will be with the purpose of finding jobs  to get the money rolling in.

But before that happens its worth considering the cost of it all… because when I started researching our move to Albania it was very difficult to find information on how much things cost which made it very difficult to figure out how much we’d need to live for a year.

It’s definitely cost more than we anticipated, but it’s worth noting that to live here for a year, buy a car and pay for a wedding will cost us not that much more than the average cost of a wedding in London. Result!

So here’s an idea of what things cost (converted to GBP at £1 = 176 lek):

  • Car (2003 Mercedes in good condition): £4,600
  • Car tax (for 1 year): £40
  • Car MOT: £10
  • Rent – 2 bed, furnished apt (per month): £113
  • Utilities, service charges etc (per month): £23
  • Mobile phone (per month): £6
  • Petrol: £1 a litre
  • Beer (at a bar): £0.85
  • Coffee (macchiato): £0.70
  • Nice meal out for two (with drinks): £17-£23
  • Bargain meal for two (with drinks): £10
  • Take away souvlaki (for after the pub!): £0.85
  • Loaf of bread: £0.40
  • Dry pasta (500g): £0.40
  • A whole entire watermelon: £1
  • Bus ride: £0.17
  • Taxi ride home (20 min): £4
  • Large bottle of water: £0.35
  • Hotel room (double): £20-£25 off season, £35-£45 peak season

Then there have been the numerous unplanned costs: from buying new tyres for the car (£310) to paying for a bloke who could barely speak English to act as our official translator at the legalisation of our marriage (£25)! The endless bureaucracy is fueled by endless cash payments! When we took the car in for its MOT we were told by friends that leaving a few hundred lek on the dashboard was the best way to guarantee that the car passed inspection! I refused to pay the bribe and the car passed anyway. Later on we discovered that loose change we left in the middle console (used for paying for parking) had all been removed! Ahhh, Albania…

 

 

 

 

More than a year in Albania?

Back at the beginning of the year I wrote a short piece on life as an expat and my move to Albania. It was published on a NZ news website and attracted over 100 comments – many were almost of the trolling kind – which totally made me laugh. One comment from a reader stuck with me. Referring to Albania, he said: “That country has a list of downsides that would take several weeks to recite.”

This annoyed me. I wondered how this person had compiled their ‘list of downsides’ and I would guarantee it wasn’t from actually, you know, living in Albania. It came across as a very ignorant comment. I mean, every country has downsides and certainly Albania’s would be longer than some others. But it’s also pretty blimmin amazing. It feels like there is something going on here… there is a sense of possibility… of the country going through a rapid transformation… of being on the precipice of something great (hopefully not a whopping great cliff).

This all came into play when hubby and I started discussing our next move. We set aside one year to live in Albania without working – without earning any money. We’re in the second half of that year now and, while there is a little bit of fat on our financial resources, being unemployed with zero income is not sustainable in the long-term (unfortunately)! We have to start considering our next move and we have to consider a number of key issues… jobs, houses, money, having kids, saving for retirement, being sensible and grown up.

And really it comes down to moving to a sensible grown-up country to buy a house, get jobs and settle down…  But as we talked, the thought of returning to that life of work work work to cover bills bills bills just really turned our stomachs. One of the attractions of moving to Albania was that we were leaving that lifestyle for something we felt would be more positive.

I love living here. I love how important ‘family’ is here. It’s more important than money, jobs – everything. (Note: this does also have downsides!) With the first world struggling to deal with ageing populations, I’m thinking that while it might be difficult financially (and physically) to be old here – you certainly would never be lonely. The elderly are embraced, cocooned, respected and cared for by their families in an amazing way.

I love how things are so local. We have our fruit shop down the road. The lady who runs it knows my husband’s cousin. The baker who makes our bread speaks English to me because he knows my Shqip (Albanian) is rubbish. The guy who runs the petrol station we frequent came to our wedding – because he’s a cousin. The butcher is a cousin of a cousin (or something like that). The guys who run the car wash say hi to us in the street. So does the man who runs the hardware store. The other day the man who sold us his car drove past – all flashing lights, tooting and waving. I have more local ‘community’ here after eight months than I had in 10 years in London. I love that.

So what if we considered Albania as something more than a one-year adventure? Change is happening rapidly here. With the hope of EU membership status proving to be a substantial carrot, the government is pushing through changes at great speed. Some people are proving to be reluctant followers when forced to pay tax, pay for utilities and generally follow the rules. But, as the giant EU bureaucratic juggernaut rolls into town, it is bringing opportunity.

It feels like, to us, that if we moved on from Albania without making the most of the opportunities – without seeing if we could sustain ourselves financially while enjoying the phenomenal lifestyle that this beautiful country affords – then we would really be missing out.

And so this becomes our goal for the next few months. Can we make Albania work – at least for another couple of years – before caving in to a sensible life in the first world?