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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.

Feb 2014 101

Feb 2014 183

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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May2014 021

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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July_2014 328

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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.

October 2014 128

October 2014 071

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The last year has quite simply been the best decision we could have made and our greatest adventure.

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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 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…