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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…

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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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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.’