Tag Archives: Albania

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!

 

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.

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!

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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.

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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.

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Albania’s southeast

With the stunning landscapes of Albania’s Accursed Mountains in the north, and the coastline that runs down the west to the turquoise waters of the Riviera in the south, it’s often the east of Albania that is neglected by visitors to the country.

We neglected it too – but with two months left until we leave Albania for NZ, we’ve finally managed to tick Albania’s southeast off our Albanian bucket-list.

This region is culturally and archaeologically rich. It’s main centre is Korçë. This city has been central in the development of Albanian culture since during the time of the Ottoman rule. It’s home to the first school to teach using the Albanian language. I loved the clean, tidy public space. It felt a very welcoming city. The cathedral is stunning and well-worth popping in to visit. And we had a lovely mooch through the cobbled streets in the surrounding area.

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One of the key tourist attractions listed in Korçë is the church in Mborja, Kishe e Ristozit. We managed to find the pretty little church but it’s currently undergoing restoration (yay!) so is surrounded by scaffolding and is inaccessible (not yay!). Instead, we made the drive up the hill overlooking Korçë, to the church visible from the town. It gives amazing views over the valley.

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We stayed in Voskopojë. This small village, about a 20 min drive from Korçë, was once the largest city in the Balkans with 35,000 citizens, an art school and the first printing press in the region. This was very hard to believe standing in the sleepy village square and looking at the small collection of stone houses! It’s a very pretty little village with clean (litter-free!) streets.

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In every direction there are churches – just a few of the 24 that once stood. We visited several – the most famous being the Church of St Nicholas. (If you find it locked, ask a local and they will help you find the key holder. Alternatively, find the priest!) What a stunning church! This gorgeous gem survived Hoxha’s destruction of churches and mosques when the town ganged together and persuaded him that it was worth preserving this culturally important building. I’m so glad they made the effort. It really is glorious!

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We also made the trip south of Korçë (about 45 min on sealed roads) to another beautifully conserved village – Dardha. Nestled in amongst the mountains, the village was settled by Catholics following what seems to be quite a successful strategy of escaping the Ottomans by setting up home in a very remote and inaccessible part of the country. (Theth is another example of a village settled for this reason!) You can park at the ‘top’ of the village, near the church and meander down steep cobbled streets and past lovely stone cottages and bountiful plum trees. Apparently a number of well-known Albanian politicians and celebrities have houses here which may explain the good quality road and clean and tidy appearance of the village!

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Another big attraction of the southeast is Lake Ohrid which is shared with Macedonia. Pogradec is the main town on the Albanian side of the lake. The town is littered with beaches along its shore and boasts some great public space stretching along the lake front. But our favourite place to stop on Lake Ohrid is the pretty little village of Lin, just a few kilometres outside of Pogradec off the road heading to Elbasan. Lake Ohrid is famous for its fish – the koran in particular – and the nicest place to try this fish is sitting out over the lake at the restaurant in Lin.

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Mali i Dajtit

The best thing about our apartment is that you can walk onto our balcony and look up to the mountain of Dajti. We are the last apartment building before the mountain begins and after us its farm land, small villages and olive groves climbing up the lower slopes to the steep rock face.

Dajti watches over Tirana sprawling out over the flat land below. Its foothills mercifully prevent the urban growth from moving much further east. It’s gloriously fresh with blossom in the spring, green in the summer, orange and red in the autumn, snow-capped in the winter. We’ve come to think of it as our mountain. We have our favourite trails over the foot hills, around the lake, past abandoned tunnels built as bomb shelters during the regime.

Ten years ago the Austrians built a cable car up the mountain. The 20 minute ride provides spectacular views of the mountain (including our apartment!) and Tirana. It’s made the mountain more accessible as the road, while vastly improved, remains very potholed in parts. It’s become a favourite part of our standard itinerary for our overseas visitors.

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The Dajti Express runs from Linze. You can catch the Linze bus from the centre of Tirana. Look for the signs or ask the bus driver to tell you where to jump off the bus. It’s a steep hike from there up Rruga Shefqet Kuka to the cable car station. If you’re feeling less willing to battle public transport then a taxi from the centre of Tirana will cost you approx 700-800 lek.

It’s hard to give you solid operating times for the cable car. Generally, it seems closed on Mondays… and operates from around 9am till 10pm (earlier in the winter). The website currently seems to be closed for refurbishment!

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At the top of the cable car is a hotel, cafe, restaurant, walking trails and fantastic views over Tirana. Behind the hotel is a large grassy area where the kids can ride horses, clamber over bunkers, etc. There are also free mini-buses put on by the restaurants set up on the mountain. Our favourite, by far, is Gurra e Përrisë. The restaurant is in a gorgeous setting surrounded by forest. In the summer you can sit out under the trees. In the winter you can warm up by the log fire. The restaurant is also a trout farm and you can watch the chef catch your fish before its cooked and served.

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The mountain is very walk-able. Tracks are reasonably well-marked. I’m told it takes 3-4 hours to get to the level of the cable car. It’s another 2 hours to the summit. (Confession: we’ve only actually ever made it three-quarters of the way up to the cable car level! The full hike is definitely on our Albanian bucket-list!)