Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Finally Festive??

Well it seems I have maligned Albania. It does have festive cheer, it is just UN-fashionably late, by Western standards anyway. Around the 7th Dec suddenly Christmas trees appeared in shops, the local markets are awash with chinese fairy lights, huge gaudy baubles, a rainbow dazzle of tinsels, a santa outfit for every size (babe to adult) including models with plaits attached to hats, Father Christmas 'skirts' and so on.

And then there are lights everywhere. 4 & 5 storey buildings have lights dripping the full length of them. Strung across the roads are very heavy wire stars which are suspended from heavily sagging cables. They swing so low over the main road through Tirana that I always choose my 'lane' carefully. And should white van man (yes you get them in Albania too) or a delivery lorry choose the wrong lane, on this broad boulevard, they will find themselves delivering more than barrels of beer or tins of paint, as the drooping Stars of David are snagged along in their wake.

I have to confess to a huge dose of 'Bah Humbug' when I see all these festive lights. Albania cannot supply power to all its citizens. The poor voiceless areas suffer most. If you live near an embassy or in the student area you don't get ANY power cuts. EVER. They don't want students rioting or protesting. Embassies have an agreement with the government not to have their 'business' interrupted by power cuts. The rest of us have power cuts. I am weary of them. The power is turned off to save it & eek it out. The antiquated infrastructure can't cope with the burgeoning demands.

But clearly Albania wants to appear fully 'developed' and Western. The way to do this? Put up Christmas lights as the ultimate symbol of superfluity, affluence & frivolity (not to mention rank disregard for energy saving, at least not in the sense I understand it).

We don't have enough electricity to go round, but hey we can still light our buildings all night with ridiculous quantities of fairy lights as it's Christmas. Even though we don't actually celebrate Christmas here.....but let's have the lights anyway.

We can always turn them out in the New Year..... in the whole country. In fact there's a joke along those lines isn't there? Not quite so funny when you're living it.

I have also discovered this year (I'm told this is quite new) you can buy a FROZEN turkey, I have one. I did NOT have to murder it for my Christmas dinner, though I have seen several hapless birds today, still alive, being carried (3 at a time) by their feet to their fate. I have even found wrapping paper, a polystyrene tray with 5 slightly tired looking sprouts, a wreath for the door. Hooray. So apologies Albania.

And we also went to a nativity play on Sunday. This was quite unusual I must admit. Firstly it was performed by adults, which I have never seen before. Secondly it featured the devil. You may well be racking your brains at this point to remember at which point the devil appears in the Christmas story. Or when your Little Darling donned a pair of horns to play Lucifer in the primary school nativity. Well this group decided to show the fight between good & evil represented by white angels & dark angels, endeavouring to stop the Wise Men getting to Jesus. Complete with very loud music.

Trouble was they did this with a man wearing a rubber devil mask, in a hooded black coat, little horns & carrying a trident. He was very 'realistic'. The devil then proceeded to leap down the central aisle where he almost knocked over a toddler standing gaping, in sort of suspended horror, in the middle of it. She screamed, & fell over in her haste to get back to her mother, and would not stop screaming for the rest of the scene (which was quite long). My daughter was covering her eyes, and saying: "Don't let him near me mummy", as I was seated right by the aisle. She then started to claw her way over to her dad 3 seats along as the devil roamed up the central aisle. He then set off another child too. The place was in minor uproar.

I dont think I have ever been to a Nativity play where quite so many were reduced to tears. And it wasn't the parents for once.

This Christmas has been quite an education.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Very Good Mothers

My 4 yr old daughter is trying to get a few things straight....

Question Number 1. "Is blanket a rude word?" she asked me the other day.

Completely out of context, she had for some reason, asked me (whilst we were cooking) if she could have a blanket. Somewhat confused, I must have frowned, because she then asked if it was a rude word. I realised again, how much toddlers read faces with their limited language & comprehension skills. I gather this is why children hate masks, and often clowns, because they can't read any visual clues. I had frowned, (I do when I'm thinking), so she assumed I was cross because she had said something naughty I guess.

This reminded me too of an incident with my son , aged 7 at the time, who was being bullied by an exquisitely beautiful little blonde, tanned Dutch girl. A little girl he adored from afar & desperately wanted to be friends with. He was very confused by her behaviour & said when I tried to discuss it with him;
"But Mummy how can someone SO pretty be so nasty?" Ah, there's a lesson for life. A good one to learn early I guess.

Question Number 2. from my 4 y-o:

"When you were little were you a boy?"

I don't know what prompted this question, but it propelled me straight back 35 years to the skinny little blonde girl with short hair, my childhood self, who was often mistaken for a boy. Little did my daughter realise this innocent question raised all those insecurities & emotions as if they were yesterday. I was immediately 7 yrs old again & in the showers at a campsite.

I overheard a girl asking her mum why that boy (me) had gone in the ladies' showers. I remember digging out the one skirt I had taken on holiday with me & wanting to wear it every day. Can't remember if I did or not. Probably not. Would have attracted too much attention as to why I was doing that.

Sometimes it was old ladies, sometimes it was other children. I hated it. In my mind it was because I had short hair. I never actually thought I did look like a boy.

I always wanted long hair but my mum didn't like little girls having long hair & chewing it or tossing their hair around. Now I'm a mother I'm exactly the same. I don't like it either. I have just taken my daughter to the hairdresser & had 2 inches cut off her hair to stop her chewing it (& to get rid of the knots she won't allow me to tease out). I have long hair by the way. Have done ever since I left home. Pyschologists would probably have something to say about that...

It happened as late as aged 11, being taken for a boy. But then I took a while turning into a woman too. I can still feel the ruler the boys in secondary school used to run down my back in order to announce to the class that I didn't wear a bra (a sure sign that you were still a little girl amongst your womanly classmates).

Still no one would mistake my 4 y-o for a boy, way too much pink going on for that. Perhaps that's where I went wrong, I pre-date the "If you're a girl everything must be pink" phenomenon. And as for boys with rulers, well she'd probably just tell them she was a feminist and that she'd burnt her bra.

My son is the sensitive one who will fall foul of pretty, but malicious girls, my daughter will stand up for herself, whilst wearing pink of course.

I am also trying to teach my daughter about privacy. When we go to the loo, together of course, I help her, then I go. Usually at exactly the wrong moment she decides that, as she is now dressed & ready, she will open the door & leave. I lose track of the number of times I have said,
"Don't open the door till I've been myself" Recently, as I was, on autopilot, saying "don't open the door...." in a crowded 'Ladies', she interrupted in her clear, ringing tones (I think is how it's put), saying:

"I know mum, because NO ONE wants to see you naked"........

Another area of permanent rumination, is the discussion of fairy tales. My daughter was asking me a question about Cinderella & the Fairy Godmother which began:

"You know when Cinderella's 'Very Good Mother' comes in and waves her magic wand....?"

A mishearing, but obviously one that made perfect sense to my daughter. In fairy tales you get Very Good Mothers, with magic & sparkle, capable of making all your wishes come true.

In real life you get Run of the Mill Mothers, like me, who make you eat your vegetables, won't let you wear nail polish, let alone glass slippers, (or anything with a heel) & even forget to put money under your pillow when a tooth falls out (or remembers 2 days later).

Big brothers, on the other hand, are evidently amazing. In real life, not fairy tales:

My daughter commented admiringly the other day, of her brother, with a wistful sigh "A is SO amazing"

"Why?" I asked, curious though not in disagreement.

"He can do so many things like ride a bike with only 2 wheels, put a film on the t.v, and speak in different languages"
(she must mean English & American as his Albanian consists of about 6 fairly useless phrases),

"AND...... (pause for emphasis) he can even wipe his own bottom".

So, the dizzy aspirational heights of being 8.

"Well" I said "What can you do? I'm sure you can do amazing things too."

She thought for a moment and then said:

"Well I can do a few tricks on the trampoline, get the cereals out in the morning, eat lots of fruit, write my own name & dance."

I'd say that's quite a respectable list for a 4 y-o.

And me? Well, I can, 'fairy godmother-like', magically turn from a 'boy' into a woman, & a mother ( & even look the part). I can go to the loo, whilst in full readiness that the door will be opened at any moment, and I can look like a rather tired & cross mother on the outside, whilst being quite nice on the inside.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Festive Cheer....

Today it rained. Last night it rained. No rain for 2 months and now this. Thunder, lightning (ALL day), torrential rain, flooding. It rained for 12 hours non-stop.

Power outtages have become more frequent as the electrcitiy supply is stretched with the cold weather and the lack of rain (hyrdoelectric)

It's good for the electricity supply I guess, but bad for the inevitable chaos that ensues with bad weather (power cuts, flooded roads, mud everywhere, crazier traffic & enlarged potholes) I could go on.

Our road floods whenever it rains. Literally more than ankle deep right across the road, so without a car or galoshers, you're trapped.

I returned from the school run at 8.20 to discover the power had gone off, for the 3rd time in 6 days. It was off all day the last 2 times. This time it was off 12 hrs.

I mentally ticked off all the things I couldn't do now: email, order the last few Christmas presents online, dry my very wet hair (I forgot to take an umbrella), wash clothes (still bloody from my daughter's dramatic gash on the head yesterday), cook (cake for school Christmas stall), iron (ok, not so tragic), listen to the radio, listen to music, sew (cushion covers for a friend), have any heating on, shower (electric pump), or even see what I'm doing. I was tempted to just go back to bed....

However, today I have plans, I have a Christmas coffee morning. With real mince pies. I phone the lady who runs the craft group I go to sometimes, who was hosting it. Her mincemeat was confiscated from her hand luggage at Gatwick, she tells me. So no mince pies. Clearly an explosive mix. Worse, they have begun to dig her road up without warning yesterday. Both ends are blocked by diggers, which have been abandoned there overnight. I hope no one in her rd goes into labour or has a heart attack...

So we can't drive to her house or park. There is no where else to park. It's impossible to find a space in Tirana. You can't drive to anyone's house here unless they live 'out' of the centre or have an embassy style villa with off road parking. SO I could bike, as I usally do, but this is monsoon rain ( I Know. I lived in a monsoon climate for 2 yrs..) I'd get soaked.

Who would have thought a coffee morning could be so complicated?

I had another Christmas party tonight, the women's international group bash, but my husband is going to a series of lectures on macro-economics (much more important than swigging cocktails with a bunch of ex-pat women, possibly even more fun...), but our newly found babysitter (not used yet) I discovered, too late, has a regular commitment on Wednesdays. So it's home alone. Again. When am I going to get my glad rags out & go to a party? Even a coffee morning suddenly seems hugely appealing, with or without mince pies. A spot of mulled wine, a dash of tinsel, even canned carols.... I'm desperate.

Still all this is in keeping with Albania's general lack of seasonal cheer. Christmas is not celebrated at all. It was a communist country with a full on Mao style cultural revolution after all. It's not even a public holiday.

I miss the festive run up, there are no pantos, neither school nor church put on a nativity or any Christmas play, we can't even have the tradition of 'buying the tree' from a farm.

Sadly Christmas trees ( I mean real ones) aren't available, so I am going to have to swallow my pride & buy an artificial one. And believe me the cheap Chinese imports make few concessions to emulating the real thing. You can at least get a green one though.

Still, looking on the bright side, I'm probably very right on and envronmentally with it. It's probably all the rage in LOndon isn't it to have a 'sustainable' (even everlasting) tree . You know
"Real Christmas Trees are SO 2007, darling"

I'm sure Harvey Nics do a fabulous imitation Norwegian Spruce....

Well mine will be lurid green, plasticky & limp. I must remember not to position it too near the wood burner as it would melt like a nylon nightie with the merest whiff of wood smoke. And without that nice pine-y smell.

Oh, and as for the turkey, well, if I want one for our Christmas dinner, it will have to be a live one, I'm told. Evidently that's the only way you can buy one here. I'm not sure I have it in me to strangle a turkey. More to the point I don't even know how I would get it home.. strapped on to my child's bike seat behind me??

Anyway I've told my Mother-In-Law, (who has kindly offered to help with the food, by bringing out a Christmas cake & pud etc from the U.K), that she will need to kill the turkey upon arrival.

She has agreed with me that we'll eat chicken...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Carnival Time

I have been invited to take part in a 'blogging carnival', hosted this time by Potty Mummy. It's called The Best of British Mummy Bloggers, so I qualify on 3 counts anyway. It's a bit of fun, and you get to find & read other interesting blogs by....well, British, mums, who blog.

Here's the link. I don't know how to do this in a more clever way, so just click on it...

I'm a bit behind with writing my weekly post, (I try & do one a week, can't seem to manage more) there are lots of ideas up there in the old grey matter, but had a lot of Mangava stuff to do, the Roma Hand-Made card project I volunteer with. I have been handed the reins whilst my colleague is away in Italy. It had to be this week that my car was being serviced (actually major reconstructive surgery), so I have had to bike everywhere, (including up to the project half an hour away), that it has rained all week (& I have got wet more times than I can count), and that the P.A to the EU commissioner phones to say can they use Managava cards for the commissioner's Christmas card this year. That was a real coup, the bad news was I couldn't give him 700 within a week, and I have been haring around all week organising it and rejigging other orders. Even so 150 was our limit.
Still, I told the P.A I would be back next year, IN AUGUST, with our new designs.
But hey, I'm suddenly grateful to the Americans it's Thanksgiving tomorrow, so my children have 2 days holiday from their respective INTERNATIONAL schools to celebrate this famous INTERNATIONAL holiday. And I'm going to have a lie-in...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Play On

I went to a piano recital last week. Only an informal one. A lady, after 11 yrs as a nursery teacher, decided to open the ground floor of her house as a tea house. It serves different teas, good coffee, hot chocolate and cakes. A world apart from anywhere in Tirana I would say. Sometimes she does an Iranian evening meal (she's half Iranian) She has decorated her house absolutely beautifully and all sourced in Albania, converting the ground floor from nursery school to tea house. She said it was a huge effort finding furnishings and furniture etc & she nearly gave up at times. She also made or adapted a lot of stuff herself. People who go there say: "I can't believe you found this here in Albania." This lady is also a masseuse and a former professional pianist, so she treated us to some of her own compositions plus 2 Chopin pieces.

This was only the 2nd evening out I have had since arriving in Albania 11 mths ago. It was so civilised and the surroundings so beautiful, and then she started playing and it made me cry. Chopin doesn't normally make me cry I hasten to add. Some music does. I'm not even into music that much, especially, compared to my husband. But I do miss the concerts we used to go to in the U.K.

Fortunately I was in the front row so I hope no one noticed. My 1st thought was "Get a GRIP, girl." I didn't know what had come over me. It was like having been submerged too long, and suddenly coming up to gulp sweet, fresh air.

I guess I could blame having a bad week, or hormones or over-tiredness, but you know what I think it was? It was missing beauty.

Living here there is a lot of environmental ugliness round about, the roads are cracked and full of potholes, there are no man hole covers on the drains, there is rubbish everywhere, not litter but actually dumped rubbish. Even all the (beautiful & functional) fruit trees have been cut down, at the end of the communist era in angry reaction to the past. Most of Tirana is a building site. Most of Tirana has a fine layer of dust permanently resting on it. It's true the mayor has done a grand (& cheap) job painting all the old communist blocks in vibrant colours. But there's still a lot of shabbiness.

The quality of everything from workmanship, service, utilities to clothes, to education is very mediocre or downright awful.

At the risk of sounding sentimental and maudlin (but hey ho, here goes) it's also missing beauty in community, friendship, family. Instead of making do with whatever is available, however meagre that might be. I think that sums it up 'making do', and sometimes I get tired of it. That's not to do with Albania, it's just being an uprooted alien in a foreign land.

I have tried really, really hard to 'think positive' and to be grateful for all the good, and there is much to be grateful for. Don't get me wrong, life is not miserable or really tough, but it is mediocre. And frustrating, and lonely at times. And what doesn't help and again I try really, really hard not to think of this, but it was so much better back home, (OK, apart from the weather) in ways which are so important to me, relationships, a social network, real old friends, family, a good church, a comfortable house we can fling open to friends with its familiar patina of our own collected belongings.

So I try not to compare, but the problem is I know what I am missing. I have to make myself NOT think about it. I have 2 acquaintances here who have both studied in America. For many reasons they struggle to fit back in, but also they too know what they are missing, they experience the same frustrations we do because standards aren't the same as what we have become used to, power cuts are a feature of daily life here, water being cut off, is too. The traffic is mad and maddening, the pollution is choking, many things are unavailable.

The Albanian people felt very angry when the country finally opened up and they discovered the monumental lie they had been spun about living in paradise, and they had known no better. It was SO closed they really had NO idea about the outside world. There was understandably so much anger at the deception, how they had been made to live and suffer, and at what they had missed out on. Now the Internet does the same all round the world, creating dissatisfaction & anger at the imbalance that is seen.

I know this is what we signed up for, we are hardly making big sacrifices, it's hardly a 'tough' developing country I know, and it has come a vast distance since 1994, it's just that, on some days, I can't escape this feeling that my life has been 'pared down'. I feel stripped and and bare. Sometimes I feel my world has been reduced & reduced, boiled way until there's only a dry paste left. Not always; only on the bad days, on good days I just get on with it.

That night though, the beauty of the music crept up on me unawares., caught me by surprise, with a reminder of its existence and gave me a glimpse of something else, lifted me momentarily above my circumstances.

A scene in my all time favourite film, The Shawshank Redemption, expresses it far better than I could, in which Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) finds a recording of The Marriage of Figaro in a box of stuff sent for the library. He locks himself in the Warden's office and plays the aria Che Soave Zeffiretto over the tanoy. All the criminals exercising in the yard, working in the kitchens etc stop and listen. And Morgan Freeman says this:

"I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream of. It was like some beautiful bird had flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments every last man....felt free."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remembrance Day

"When you go home, tell them of us, and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.

We went to the park on Sunday for the British Remembrance sunday service at the war memorial there. There's a tiny cemetry with 46 graves in it, commemorating the Commonwealth soldiers who died in Albania during the 2nd World War.

We had been told it was a 'smart' occasion and everybody dressed up. I guess it was the British abroad wanting to 'do it properly', although actually it's usually quite smart in the U.K. I seem to remember too.

So the day started with everyone else eating breakfast & me at the sewing machine replacing the elastic in my daughter's tights, which she insisted on wearing, despite it being a warmish, sunny day. Her 'smart' involved a blue summer dress with white flowers, a red, white & blue stripey cardigan (patriotic at least), spotted hairband and pink & red stripey tights. I didn't have time or energy to argue, though on occasions like this I do sometimes want to pin a sartorial disclaimer to my daughter's back. My son rummaged around in his wardrobe and came up with a check shirt, a tie on elastic I had bought for the fancy dress box, multi coloured striped socks, and shorts. He hasn't moved into trousers yet this Autumn, and he was making no exceptions.

Still, I was touched that they wanted to make the effort, even if it was their interpretation of 'smart'. My husband put on a suit, but then announced he couldn't bike in a suit (I was expecting to, in skirt and heels), so we had to walk. Fortunately in Albania, as in many countries, punctuality has a loose interpretation, so we arrived at 10.32, & the 10.30 service started at 10.45. We were told it couldn't start till all the local dignitaries had arrived; the chief of the army, the deputy prime minister, & also the British Military attache & the British ambassador.

My husband then started analysing the military personnel's interpretation of 'smart' and commented on the uniformed officers who were lounging on benches smoking, with jackets unbuttoned. The chief of the army, who laid a wreath during the service, also went up with jacket unbuttoned. I didn't know this was a faux pas, but hubby explained that in the British army you are not allowed to only wear part of your uniform or to wear it at all incorrectly or sloppily. He also pointed out all the unpolished shoes.

These weren't British army representatives I should add. You can't deny when it comes to uniforms and ceremonies the British military certainly know how to do them with style. I always 'forget' that when I 1st met my husband he had just left Sandhurst, or rather resigned his commission, after completing the course (with flying colours), but before passing out. Cheaper that way.... So he comes out with all these bits of information on such occasions, momentarily surprising me until I remember. It seems such a long time ago, and a life I wasn't part of at all. He also told me as a boy he used to play the Last Post at the Remembrance Sunday service in his village. I like discovering things I didn't know about him, 17 years into our marriage.

Still the Albanian army made up for it with their brass band, who were very good. And clearly they spent more time polishing their musical instruments than their shoes....There was a sizeable crowd there. The service was, as always for me, very moving. It was also strangely comforting to be flooded with the familiarity of this British occasion, the familiar resonance of the words & liturgical responses taking place under a warm, Autumnal Albanian sky. (that last factor was the unfamiliar part, standing outside in November & not feeling cold).

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember them"

The minister who spoke told the stories of 3 of the soldiers who died and commented on the values of duty, service and self-sacrifice they represented. I am always jolted by the dissonance with today's "me, me , me, I'm worth it, self-gratifying culture" They've become almost alien concepts. I often wonder what the war veterans make of today's culture & attitudes.

You rarely hear mention of such things today except in relation to admired 'oddities' like Mother Theresa or Mandela perhaps, and of course, still amongst the military in our country and others. There are still those who show bravery, self sacrifice, and service to their country, though I often think it must be so much harder in, say Iraq, where they must wonder what it is they are fighting & dying for.

It's hard to believe that even veterans of the 2nd World War are few & far between, being in their 80s & 90's now, and that we are about to lose that element of living history. That's why I think these Remembrance Day & others like it, are so important to keep the memory alive. To remind us of what was sacrificed to secure freedom but also to honour those who believed in such 'old fashioned' concepts of self-sacrifice & service.

At the end an old boy, with an extremely weathered, age-spotted face and rheumy eyes, went up to the British military attache and began sharing his story, talking away fervently in Albanian, leaving the attache rather at sea. A friend of mine stepped forward and offered to translate. With trembling hands, this man took took 4 yellowed photos from a much folded envelope in his jacket pocket to show the British representative. I didn't catch it all, but you could see how he pressed on, needing to share his story, still fresh after 60 yrs, holding the attache's arm as he poured out the details of his part, in his corner of war torn Europe, during Mussolini's invasion of Albania..

At the end of the service we were told anyone who had brought wreaths or flowers could lay them at the war memorial. Our son tugged my sleeve & asked if he could lay his poppy. I explained that people didn't usually lay a single poppy, they were to wear; but he said

'I want to lay something on my great grandfather's grave and it's all I have'.

So he did.

We explained that it was only a memorial to those who died in Albania but that, as it was a World War, soldiers died all over the world, and that his great grandfather was 'missing, presumed killed'' in the defence of Rangoon in Burma in 1942. Our 8 y-o said he wished his grave had been here in Albania so that he could lay his poppy on his grave. We told him his great grandfather's name is on a memorial in Burma "in Asia, 'near' where we used to live" and that there is no known grave.

Here is a picture of my father-in-law with his parents in Burma. His father, Duncan's, last letter was written on March 4th 1942, presumed killed a few days later. His mother escaped with my father-in-law (aged 2 and 5 mths) and his younger sister (aged 6 mths), to Chittagong and then by train to Calcutta, almost immediately. They stayed in India in the hills at Ranikhet trying to learn more about Duncan. They finally heard in August 1942 that he was missing, presumed killed. This status never changed, and so they sailed on the 'City of Calcutta' from Bombay in September 1942, an 11 wk voyage to Liverpool docks.

Their mother had sewn their ration books & documents into the children's coats in case they were separated or anything happened to her. Both the ship ahead and the ship behind in their convoy were torpoedoed by U-boats and sank. A near miss, which, had it happened, would have meant my father-in-law never grew up to marry, or have a son, my husband. Brings it a lot closer to home when one thinks like this.

I was proud of our 8 y-o for wanting to participate and understand. It is still part of my husband's family's living history; our son's grandfather rendered fatherless by the war. Something an 8 yr old could understand . It must have always made it particularly poignant for my father-in-law, who was a minister in the Church of England for 37 yrs, such that, every Remembrance Sunday service that he took, he was remembering a personal tragedy & childhood directly affected by the war.

I asked my father-in-law if he has any memories of his father. He has one distant memory of his father's tent flap, flapping in his face, when his dad was there, a presence, but no actual memory of him, which saddens him, not only for the void that inevitably leaves, but also because he was, he said, by all accounts, 'a lovely man'.

There, at least, is a genetic legacy his father has passed on to three generations of men; my father-in-law, and my husband, & God-willing, my son, will grow up to be known and appreciated, as a lovely man, too.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Calling a Spade a Spade.

We went to a 'Fall Festival last Friday at my daughter's school. My 4 yr old goes to the other international school as my son's school only starts at age 5. I call her school 'the American school', for that is what it seems to be. The principal told me with pride that all his staff were native Americans with only assistant teachers being local, oh and one Kosovan who had slipped through the net, (and happened to be one of the most popular lower school teachers).

I am slowly getting used to the enthusiasm and positive reinforcement of her American education. My 4 y-o came home from school on her first day sporting a name badge with "I'm a winner" printed boldly underneath it. Her work comes home with 'Good job' and 'awesome' stamped across it. She even high fives her friends when she meets them in the morning...... All this takes a bit of getting used to for a reserved Brit, used to a slightly more sober education system. My daughter has, of course, adapted seamlessly into the routine .

She has even learned the American art of euphemism. After only 8 wks there she asks me if she may 'go to the bathroom'. The 1st time she said this to me we were walking through the park off the main path, through bushes actually. Not a bathroom in sight. I pointed this out to her whereupon she said 'well a bush would do'.

So anyway, back to the 'Fall festival' It was with great excitement that my children set off for this occasion. Children were told they could dress up and that there would be lots of games. My son wanted to go as a pirate, my daughter, as a princess. Of course. To be fair we left the UK when 4 y-o was 21 mths old, and my son was 5. They had never been to any kind of Halloween party. Until recently it was never really celebrated in Britain. They had no idea, and nor, it turns out, did I.

The festival was an unmitigated disatser. We arrived, and the first thing my daughter did was scream, say she wanted to go home, and then spend the rest of the evening clinging to me, 'because of all the scary people'. She buried her face in my shoulder and clung on for dear life. Everyone was, of course dressed as a ghost, ghoul, witch or skeleton. Apart from a woman in pink with a trainer tied to her head. I never got to the bottom of that one..

I couldn't work out why so many adults were dressed up. The letters home had said children may come in fancy dress if they wish. Many parents had really gone to town. Was I missing something here? And boy had they found some ghoulish, creepy masks.

Even my son said 'Wow people have got some really scary costumes, why are they all dressed like that?' I was quite proud that living abroad had made my son so naive on this point. I mean whoever thought up the great 'role model' idea of 'trick or treat'? Bribe someone to give you sweets by threatening to do something nasty to them if they don't. Good one.

My husband got held up and arrived an hour late which also didn't help matters so I had to carry a petrified 4 yr old round on my hip whilst my 8 y-o played all the ghoulish games.

What niggled me most though was, why call it "Fall Festival"? What had it got to do with Fall, apart from that it is now Autumn? I mean it was a Halloween party, on 31st Oct, complete with pumpkins, each grade singing a Halloween themed song about, witches or skeletons rattling etc. Everyone knew that's what it would be (except my son & daughter who had no previous experience of Halloween). What are we trying to avoid by calling it 'Fall Festival' instead?

So when we get to Christmas, should I expect people to wish me Happy Holidays, or Happy Holiday Season? I mean Eid is Eid, Divali is the festival of lights, Christmas is a Christian festival celebrating Christ's birth. So why not call it what it is?

What's with these politically correct alternative labels?

Speaking of which, tomorrow night we're trying again, this time we're going to a 'bonfire party', to celebrate Guy Fawkes night. Needless to say it's a night for the British contingent here in Tirana. We'll be doing the usual burning of an effigy of the freedom fighter/terrorist GF, & having a bonfire (which is why we call it a 'bonfire party') Not very politcally correct really, so it's probably just as well it's Brits only. But at least we call a spade a spade.

Monday, November 3, 2008


After 10 months here I am just beginning to feel part of the local community. Admittedly we live in an area where there isn't much 'community' at all. We live in one of five 3 storey villas, still standing, dwarfed by new and half built apartment blocks.. At night you look out of the window & you see only a very small handful of lights on in the blackened blocks.
It is still a ghost suburb; a suburb in waiting, empty shop fronts on the ground floors of every apartment block, a five a side football pitch, sitting areas, all planned in, amidst the builders' rubble. Waiting for a community to move in.

When we 1st moved here there was a little local corner shop & a new supermarket just opening (it still has very little on its shelves) That was it, but gradually a few cafes, a bakery, new shops are opening, even though it's a bit soon. No one really lives here.

We even now have a hair salon in our road, called "Glamour- Hair and Beaty are back" No that's not a typo, well not one of mine at least, (my Lynne Truss style son, is itching to creep out with a 'U' and correct it at dead of night, but I won't let him. Actually he's torn, part of him wants to add an 'S' instead) There's also a meat shop on the corner which is full of 'long life' salami at the moment. Not enough turn over for fresh meat.

I like it. Despite the relentless building, bulldozing, dust clouds & unmade up roads, it is actually quite quiet, compared to frenetic, traffic congested central Tirana. And we can see green spaces. The zoo, the lake, the mountains. It has more of a 'village' feel to it. Our next door neighbours keep chickens, grow all their own veg and have a very prolific vine for their wine brewing too.

Recently at the supermarket, my bill was 8000 lek. I tried to pay with my card but as is often the case the machines weren't working, so after two failed cards & a rummage in my purse, I only find 5000. I started to put things back, muttering under my breath about feeling like a student not having enough cash. The check out girl called a guy over, who I gathered was the manager but looked more like a drug dealer, and after she explained to him, she turned to me & said;

"It's fine just take the shopping and bring the other 3000 Lek in tomorrow (that's about £17 of stuff)

"After all", she said "you're always here."

I hope she meant that I lived round here and was a known face rather than , 'you're that scatty foreigner who pops back several times some days because you keep forgetting something'. (It IS only a 5 min walk away.)

In fact one of the shop assistants there always greets my daughter by name, not sure how she knows it, as my daughter resolutely refuses to give her name to anyone who asks. (& she gets kissed too, even less popular) and the lady in the tiny play area next to the shop, greets both my children by name, whenever we pass.

At the local corner shop when my bike fell over with my daughter strapped into the bike seat, causing her to hit her head, the shopkeeper & her daughter rushed out with ice for her head and for days afterwards they kept asking after my daughter's bump, and general health. I learnt some new vocabulary that week. And my daughter gained quite a few sweets.

Then there's the cleaner, who works downstairs for the landlord, & comes in every day. She is always trudging laboriously along the dam road when I'm returning from the school run, so I give her a lift. She's so overweight and puffed that I sometimes wonder if actually I'm doing her a disservice giving her a lift.

We do the greetings routine then having exhausted my repertoire of Albanian, we fall silent. Sometimes we have a sign language conversation about the weather or the traffic. I throw in a 'po' or a 'yo' (yes & no) and tut and shake my head, or look at the sky .

I also like seeing the two Roma teenagers who work the same spot by the traffic lights cleaning windscreens. It took me weeks to get them to actually notice my filthy windscreen and clean it, instead pursuing their unsolicited cleaning of an impatient driver's windscreen. They always grin & wave now, &, of course, if it's a red light, clean my windscreen. Perhaps I pay over the odds, or perhaps it's because I say 'thank you'. Who knows, but it makes me feel like I belong, this is my town.

Then there's the guy I see every single day pushing his cerebral palsy son in his wheelchair round the little zoo (next door to us), the park (over the road), or the local streets. He seems to be out and about most of the day.

It's a picture I find very moving every time I see them; they are out whatever the weather, the father's attention completely rapt in his son, pointing things out to him, talking to him, occasionally I have seen him help him out of the wheel chair in the park, and, holding his arms out wide to his son, encourages him to walk to him. He seems endlessly patient, endlessly attentive & kind. And he does this day in, day out.

Today I saw him in the park at one of the little informal rifle ranges old guys set up next to the path to earn a bit of money. There he was leaning cheek to cheek with his grinning son, as he held the arms of the wheelchair & manoeuvred it gently into position opposite the target for his son to shoot. Later, on my way back across the park from collecting my daughter I see them again. This time he is bumping him down a hilly off road path between the trees. The son is making a tremendous racket but, judging from his face, he's loving it. They stop at the bottom to chat to a vendor selling bottles of water out of his cool box. I smile, I feel I should greet them, I see them so much.

These are some of the people in my community. If only I could speak the language I would feel a much greater sense of belonging. I'm learning but it's a slow process. Still, you find it makes you smile a lot more, not having any words.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Routines and Rituals

One of the 'rituals' here that I like is the way people greet each other. This seems to be quite a normal routine pretty much everywhere except the U.K. Certainly in much of Europe it is commonplace. It may be a formula but I love it. I like the fact that in shops, at the bank, in school, office you always say good morning, afternoon, night (you do have to wear a watch to ensure the correct salutation) and on leaving you always say thank you, AND good bye. Even to the check out girl. It just seems a decent human interaction. It starts things off on a good footing, and brings things to a satisfactory conclusion. And for me it gives me a confidence in a foreign land, which comes from 'knowing the routine'.

People also shake hands which I like. (Though not so much when they're in the car in front and are greeting a pedestrian. Traffic stops for the ritual) The men also kiss each other and do manly clasps. I'm not sure about the women, they do sometimes but not as often as the men. I need to research further. I feel less confident about all this, (see post Birthdays, Beer Cake and Bow Ties June 07) but hand shaking I can do.

The only time in the UK it seems when you absolutely always say hello or good morning is out in the country when walking. This seems to be accepted that us hitherto taciturn Brits immediately become cheery and halloo each other (even making eye contact, heaven forbid) the minute one is striding out over the green stuff. I have never understood this.

When I go back to the UK I'm always much more chatty in shops (not local shops where you might know them) & say good morning, goodbye & thank you. I endeavour to engage people in conversation. It does seem to create suspicion or bemusement at times. I like to think it's a lesson learnt from another friendlier, perhaps more ritualised culture, but actually I think I've just turned into that lonely, old woman on the bus, who strikes up conversation, as if she knows you, the minute you sit down next to her. I know now how she feels.

I might have said before that I am involved in a Roma 'hand made' card making project Mangava. I help out one afternoon a week. The Roma and the 'Poor Albanians' are being trained (& paid) in developing card making skills. The Poor Albanians as they are known, live in an abandoned tractor factory, and dig for iron to exchange for money. It is unbelievably hard work. Incidentally that is why there are no man-hole covers in this country. (They are nicked as soon as laid and sold for scrap metal) The card making project is offering them an alternative.

Anyway because I can only help one afternoon a week, & because they have so little of anything good in their lives, I always bake something to take along as a tea time snack. Sounds silly, but it's all I could think of.

Last week it was Lemon drizzle cake & two of the ladies almost came to blows over the last piece. One of the helpers who speaks fluent English said to me;
"Bless your hands"
I beg your pardon? " I said.

She explained this was what the women were saying. She explained it is what you say to someone who has cooked you a meal, or prepared you something . Isn't that just lovely?
Makes me want to bake just to get such a beautiful benediction. Not bad I thought either for a country that had all aesthetics, artistic & spiritual expression & culture pulverised out of it for 40 odd years. A resilient thing, the human spirit.

Maybe it's just a formula, but you know, I think they meant it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Climate Compensations

When we first moved to Albania, Albanians & foreigners alike kept saying to us "The best thing about Albania is the climate".

I think this captures both how locals and ex pats feel about this country, but also just how contrastingly fantastic the weather is.

First of all it has seasons. I hug myself with glee, sometimes secure in the knowledge that winter will emerge in to spring, summer heat, swimming & sunscreen will dispel the memory of colder months & then wood burners, woollies & the crunch of dry leaves will replace air conditioners & the whine of mosquitoes. It's like being a child in a chocolate factory anticipating the delights in the next bubbling vat. I have always loved the seasons, the markers of the year, & the traditions & activities associated with each.

I missed them dreadfully in Sri Lanka. who'd have thought the sight of a clear blue sky could become oppressive? I found the relentless, unchanging nature of the weather there tedious. Hot & wet or hot & dry. But always hot. And humid.

So perhaps I am overly excited about living 'in seasons' again. And actually I think what I like is the balance of seasons here. Short (wet) winters, long dry summers, and warm, gentle spring & autumn. A bit of cold & drear to keep the British psyche feeling at home, but plenty of warmth , blue skies & sun too. Just not ALL the time.

It has the effect of dispelling the desperate urgency one feels as a Brit to 'get out & enjoy the weather' because you never know when another nice day might come along. Sometimes I think: 'actually I'll stay in today, or sit on the baclony', content in the knowledge that tomorrow will be another nice day. Or there'll be another very soon. It's very liberating, & much more relaxing.

I just love this time of year now. My 1st Medidterranean Autumn. Well we are north of Greece, sounds so much more romantic & exotic than East European, or Balkan Autumn somehow.

When we arrived back at the end of Aug, from our summer visit to the UK, we had three weeks still of swimming, eating outside, tennis. It made up for the lack of summer in England.

Gradually, imperceptibly we have moved into Autumn. We found we could no longer eat breakfast on the balcony, we were putting on warm tops in the evenings.

It has got colder & colder in the mornings whilst still getting up to 25' by midday. It is a sartorial nightmare. You need a coat , boots or socks & shoes or stockings in the morning. Even gloves if biking. At least 3 changes a day are needed as the thermometer see saws back & forth between summer & autumn.

Our 4 yr old, who is biked across the park in the mornings by my husband, wears long socks which she wears pulled up to her knees, (she then rolls them down, as only little girls know how, as the day gets hotter) and a fleece over her t shirt & cotton skirt. By lunch time she needs a hat & sunscreen.

The other day when I went to collect her she told me;

'Daddy wraps me in a blanket in the mornings'.

I hadn't seen this. Turns out M found a lightweight, tartan blanket which he tucks round her knees on the bike seat . 'Granny in a Bath chair' style to keep her warm, only further adding to her imperial manner as she is cycled to & fro.

I was quite impressed my hubby had thought of this; the man who refuses to wear gloves in any weather & who never remembered to pack spare clothes, nappy or snack on the boys' day he used to spend once a week with our son aged 18mths.

Not that it did our, now 8, year old any harm. They used to have a wail of a time going swimming, picking blackberries, going to watch diggers in action. Our son might have been a bit cold, wet, hungry or in a dirty nappy, but I'm sure he never noticed & that was part of being a boys' day I'm sure.

More signs: the trees are beginning to change colour. More than just dusty green on the palette now. In the park the ladies have replaced their wild flower gathering with branches of russet & gold leaves.

Most noticeable is the light though. It is so much gentler & more mellow now. Everything seems in soft focus, suffused with a golden, hazy glow, no longer the harsh, white glare of the summer where your eyes water with the blinding brightness. The skies are still blue, but it's a watery blue, the sun is still warm but it is a thinner, welcome warmth, not the scorching furnace of the 40' summers.

And the air always carries a slight chill round the edges of the sun's warmth to remind you it's no longer summer.

We haven't quite got a handle on the seasons here though. A few weeks ago my son said

"Oh look there's one of those trees with prickly things on you can play a game with", clearly resurrected from the recesses of his childhood memory bank. Too long in Asia.

"That's a horse chestnut tree" I explain.

"And those are conkers." I add.

So we went conkering yesetrday. We only found 5 despite exhaustive searching in the Botanical Gardens. ( a grand name for another dusty park with lots of trees & a few flower beds) There were none on the trees still either.

"We must be too late" I said.

The same thing happened with blackberries. We went blackberrying at the very beginning of September, only to discover we seemed to be a week or two late. There were still a few there, but mostly gone, the ones left were shrivelling and dessicating on the bushes. I picked enough for 2 small crumbles.

We need to adjust our British meteorological clocks, in line with Albanian seasons.

Meanwhile it seems to be "Season of misseds and mellow fruitlessness". We'll try again next year.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Machismo Madness.

I don't just dislike the car, I actually hate driving here. I think it's much worse than Sri Lanka. True there aren't buffalo carts, tutktuks, livestock, bicycles with beds loaded on them, on the roads, but it's so much faster here, so much more dangerous, and more than a little anarchic.

People just don't obey the rules, ( I know I sound ridiculously British about this) or seem to have much road safety awareness. Vehicles shoot red lights, I regularly get hooted at for stopping at them, they jump queues of cars waiting at lights, drive half on pavements and ignore one way systems.

So on my way to school, I meet an average of 10 cars coming towards me up one way streets. This is entirely normal. They are never honked at. Today I even met a police car going the wrong way. These cars always seem to expect me to get out of the way, never mind they shdn't even be there. Grrrrr. it' s not good for the blood pressure driving here.

Decidedly less funny, is the overtaking. On our way back from Monte Negro recently, I was in a constant state of nervous tension as cars overtake at the very last moment, nipping back into their lane with seconds to spare. Sometimes cars just carry on down the middle in a self appointed 'suicide lane' Head on collision dreams are my recurring nightmares now, so the blood pressure doesn't get a break at night either.

On this particular journey, a black Mercedes was coming straight towards us in our lane, even though he was not overtaking any cars. What was he doing, he must have SEEN us? My husband just lent on the horn, slowing down as he did so, whereupon the driver, who was close enough now, to be seen laughing with his mates, swerved back across to his side of the rd and then deliberately swerved in and out of the central white lines as he zoomed past.

The machismo culture in Albania is at its worst in the car. I have come to the conclusion that some of these drivers must be playing chicken, they cut it so fine in overtaking. Mopeds on the dam (a traffic free rd along the lake) play chicken with me all the time, as I bike along it, just drive straight at me, then swerve away at the last moment. Ha ha, what a good joke.

I have heard Albanian women complaining about how scared they are by the way their boyfriends drive here. It just seems that driving a car is a big game here to some men.

A few months ago, Dritan Hoxhes from Top Channel t.v station in Tirana, was killed along with his mistress whilst driving his Ferrari at 210km/h in Downtown Tirana, a built up single lane carriageway. The car was split in two. Machismo at its maddest...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJL3cvbuIRM Just look at how far apart the two halves of the car ended up..... Unbelievable

As antidote to all this road anarchy and machismo, I quite enjoy subverting it by being extra coutreous and solicitous of pedestrians who are used to shooting the rapids of the raging roads. They generally just lace their way, stop-start, some nonchalantly, some apprehensively, all resignedly, between the flowing cars. The only way to get across.

They even do this on Skanderberg Square, a huge old communist parade square where the cars are 5 or 6 deep as they go round.

SO I always stop at zebra crossings (unheard of) and if I meet a pedestrian car-dodger I always stop and wave them across. I have to say it's worth it just for the reaction. There's always a hesitation, sometimes slight bemusement, quickly followed by relief as they catch your eye and invariably give a smile or a wave.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Tiranan Tractor

My daughter, however, loves the car, despite the crack in the entire length of the windscreen, broken a/c, a very dodgy clutch, weak battery, a petrol gauge that moves from half to quarter back up to half again, & then straight down to empty, with no warning.

I'm also terribly ashamed to confess it's a 4x4, which we so vehemently & self-righteously poo-poohed in our UK composting, washable nappy, recycling, seasonal veg box days.

Then we moved to a developing country....

Ah how times change!

We bought it because a.) it was cheap (I wonder why.....?) and b.) it feels a lot safer being in a 4x4 when driving in this country, but that's the subject of my next post & c.) you really, really do need one here if you leave the main roads. Apart from the main roads between major towns, roads are either very potholed or not tarmaced. We were on this road with my In-Laws (see below) for 100 km. It was, according to the map, an A road. A for arduous. This vehicle in the pic, was borrowed, not ours. And this was one of the smoothest bits of the 100 km. Mostly it was more, or less, compacted rocks. It took 3 1/2 hrs.

My 4 yr old calls our car 'the tractor'. (Not a Kensington tractor, more a Tractor tractor. (Rudimentary, poor suspension, slightly smelly etc) She asks me constantly what all the different buttons do, (mentally storing away the information for future use) and practises her steering as we drive along.

She said to me last week:

"When I'm a big girl will I be able to drive?"

"Yes, if you want to learn." I reply.

"When I'm 5?" came the next query.

"No, older than that," I explain.

"8 then?" She persists. Her brother's age. He seems very grown up.

"No you have to be 17 to drive".

Though she could well be forgiven for assuming children can in fact drive. Kids here do all the time. The youngest candidate, who cut me up on the road to our house, couldn't have been more than 12. This is in the centre of the capital, not out in the country or on the farm.

This is a recurring theme. My daughter is constantly trying to establish how you 'come of age' She often asks me what she 'needs' to be a mummy.

"Apart from babies & a handbag, I mean, Mummy." Not sure where the handbag notion came from.

A while ago she said to me, still fixated on the alluring independence of being able to drive (in a womanly way, of course):

"When I'm a big girl will I have boobies and drive?"

"Yes of course" I reply, thinking, now is not the time to inform her that wearing a bra and being able to do a 3 point turn, no longer seem to be sufficient minimum criteria for entering womanhood. Not in the country's this woman has ended up in anyway....

Little does she know, I thought, that actually she should be able to change a tyre, jump start an engine (I learned that this wk too), mend a clutch, be endlessly resourceful. Maybe she'll even need to use her bra should the fan belt break But then again, maybe she'll just live in the UK, join the AA and learn to chat up mechanics.

Customer Service?

I'm beginning to dislike this car intensely. I have been jump started every morning this week, and drive to school in an angst of apprehension lest I stall. I've been running on empty for 2 days, but I can't stop and fill up with petrol because it wdn't start again.

NO ONE here can recommend anyone. The previous owner used a mechanic who was German in a town 3 hrs over the mountains. He paid his bus fare and brought him to Tirana. Most people tell you they take it out of the country or they use one of the big places which REALLY, REALLY rip you off, and there's no guarantee of good mechanics or service. My husband finally tracked down a mechanic and offered to drive him to our house at the end of the day in order to look at our engine. Even tho we'd been told youcan't get a mechanic to come to your house, ever. More useful advice that has proved wrong... He said we needed a new battery. Reassuring I guess that it wasn't the head gasket. But who knows?

To cut a long story short, by today it started on its own, I even filled up with petrol. Hurrah.

Being a woman here, as well as a foreigner, doesn't help in this macho culture, in the area of cars. In the UK the 'sexism' usually worked in my favour, and I got quite a lot of free help and time from garages. I didn't milk it or ask for it, they obviously just pitied my incompetence. Here it i s absolutely taken as read that you know nothing (about cars) because you're a woman, (a fair assumption in my case, but I can bandy a few terms around, though not in Albanian, so that life skill has gone by the board here) which also means you're rich pickings for being ripped off.

However at the tyre place on Monday, getting my tyre repaired, I got chatted up by a customer, & the mechanic didn't rip me off, but was incredibly helpful. So I shouldn't make generalisations. (Though it was Albanian women who warned me of this). Anyway I was far more concerned about keeping MY eye on another customer who had come in with his moped with a flat tyre, who had a revolver stuck into his jeans, for all to see.

I was amazed, I have met loads of people out in the country carrying shotguns and rifles, & you can hear shooting at night in certain areas at times, but a civilian, in the middle of Tirana with a gun??

My husband shrugged and said:

'Well that's what it's like in America, the right to bear arms' etc. I guess I must be very naive. I had no idea you could just take your gun everywhere with you quite legitimately in America. Is that really true? One way of ensuring you get a good service at the garage I suppose.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


That's the key to living abroad I think, being resourceful. Practical, handy, calm and collected probably also help too, as does knowing more than a smattering of the local language. I really do feel so helpless. I don't know how long it will be before I can string a whole sentence (with a verb) together, let alone understand the response I get. So I have to ask for help. (from the 4 people I know well enough to ask) It's good for the Western independent spirit I guess. I feel so utterly dependent on others here. Personally I find it quite humiliating at times, but that's probably just my perspective. Perhaps humbling would be a more positive turn of phrase.

The other thing you need is LOTS of equipment, like our landlord having a whole spare car battery, a pump run off the cigarette lighter to pump up tyres, and every tool and gadget under the sun, because basically you need to fix everything yourself. I'm not sure why this is, we're in a capital city. There just seem to be very few service industries. And workmen generally do an incredibly shoddy job (as we have found out, and Albanians have agreed). The other issue is a truism I have heard again and again, that it is very hard to find things out in Tirana, where to buy certain things, where to get a tyre pumped up, where to get a good hair cut, where to buy tickets etc. And believe me I have tried all of these and more.

The other problem is when you have been married for donkeys years, well 17, you do get used to your spouse doing certain things. Or you may never have even done them. I have never done the DIY, M has never done the cooking. I am resourceful in my areas of expertise, I can make curtains, mend clothes, dress-make, cook, decorate, cut my husband's and children's hair; but when it comes to mending bikes, radios, kitchen appliances, cars, using a power drill, then I'm not your woman. Clearly I need to become so though.

Since moving abroad, my husband has made it clear, that sorting any issue with the car, dealing with our U.K house or tenants back home, etc are all my babies now, and he doesn't even want to hear about them because it 's an added stress. Tell me about it.... So if I begin to talk about it he won't listen because he thinks I'm off-loading the problem onto him. Which I guess I am in a way. I'm a desperate woman, totally at sea, in a boat I can't sail.

I was though, feeling quite pleased with my progress and resourcefulness, but living here has a nasty habit of reminding me just how far I still have to go....

My list of acheivements so far:

  1. Removed old door lock from door, Went to electrical market (no English speakers) and bought new door lock. Fitted it. It worked! I had to do this becasue the landlord had still not done anything about it in 3 months.

  2. Broken fridge handle. Unscrewed it, and fitted it to freezer door which is used less often. Put good freezer handle on fridge. Small, but pleasing achievement because it made me realise I could be practical.

  3. Sorted sink U bend problem. Our bendy soft plastic U bend under the sink was too long. The plumber refused to change it saying it was fine. The problem was it draped down into the drawer below and so the drawer couldn't be opened. So I crawled under the sink on my back, 'car mechanic' style (except I didn't have one of those little wheelie boards), clutching a pair of my son's age 6 underpants, and a few safety pins. I cut them and slung them under the U bend, hammock-style, so the pipe was wearing a pair of mini support pants. A few safety pins and 'Bob's your uncle'. It has held the drooping tube in place so the drawer can be opened. That one is my favourite achievement I must admit. Resourceful, practical, thinking outside the box, even involved recycling.

  4. I mended my bike brakes. I have always been able to remove the wheel, mend a puncture, put a chain back on etc, but I know all that's child's play. Beyond a flat tyre is a world of unknown ball bearings, confusing componentry and an uncrossable sea of technical expertise. So was more than a little THRILLED to have mended my bike brakes. This was pre-car, when I had to ride 20 mins to go and fetch my daughter from nursery. Too far (for her) to walk. I was getting desperate and the only way I achieved it was to stare VERY hard at the functioning brake, and to keep comparing it with the other brake until I could see what had gone wrong. It took ages. But, reader, I fixed it.

  5. Changed & rewired numerous dodgy plugs. Ok really scraping the barrel now.

It's not a very long or impressive list is it

When it comes to the car though, I am not just way out of my depth, I'm treading water over the Mariana Trench, terrified at the thought of what lies beneath. I just about coped with the flat battery and flat tyre (clearly my expertise lies in one dimensional problems) but when 3 days ago at 7.30 a.m the clutch had no hydraulic pressure in it or whatever teh expression is I turned to my husband for help. who was just about to take daughter on his bike to nursery. He shrugged and said 'what can I do?' Not his finest hour, he later had the grace to admit. He told me he had a very full day (he's been away on business for nearly 3 wks) and that at least I had got the bonnet open which would help me when I had got someone to come out and look at it.

But that was the problem. In the UK I would make a phone call, maybe called out the AA. In Albania, how was I supposed to phone up a garage when no one speaks English, I dont speak Albanian, and anyway there's no Green Flag Recovery service? I wd just have to agree to pay enough to get someone to come to my house. Not easy to explain that over the phone when my communication skills rely on the odd Albanian word and a LOT of hand gestures.

In his favour M did agree he needed to take our son to school, (in the NGO's vehicle only he is allowed to drive) whilst I biked our daughter to nursery, solving the immediate crisis, but my normally calm, chilled husband was having another of his stress episodes (queue bad memories of overwork in Sri Lanka) he was not a happy bunny, he had had to cancel 2 meetings already. Still, even more in his favour he obviously relented enough to come back and consult the car manual with me, and then pour some Dot 3 clutch fluid into what we thought was the right receptacle in the engine. (I was, secretly, rather pleased, in a way to see he had no more idea than I had, though of cours ethat didn't help me out of my I/C car role )Rather ominously a bottle of clutch fluid was sitting handily in the driver's door when we bought the car. Coincidence? I think not.. This took nearly an hour. And the school round trip had already taken well over an hour.

Anyway it didn't work, so he called out a driver from his organisation and then went off to work. The driver pitched up with a translator, neither of whom had any idea, and, as it was raining heavily, were rather reluctant to do more than stand under the porch and ask me a few questions. They then said they had called a service place for me who were going to tow it away on Mon. I am relieved, but worried about how much this will cost as no one gets towed in this country. Except by a neighbour........

SO on Friday, determined to prove my resourcefulness, & shake off this paralysis of helplessness, I got in the car, fiddled about and yup, I FIXED THE CLUTCH. All by myself. Blonde Bimbo goes large. My Mariana trench had turned into my Everest. I had conquered the mountain.

I sat in the driver's seat, with my daughter beside me in the passenger seat, laughing and crying as I pumped the clutch. How my daughter has a hope of growing up normal with such an unhinged mother, I really don't know.

Ok, so confession time. My dear other half, had very practically, once he had calmed down that 1st night, emailed the owner of the vehicle, the kind missionary Dutch man (whom I was rapidly relabelling as 'cowboy missionary', should such a category exist) He replied instantly (so he remains the Kind Dutch Missionary. For now...), saying it had happened to him once before. evidently if there is a leak, (which there is, a small one), when the clutch fluid drops too low, air gets in the system and the hydraulic pressure is lost (clutch goes all loose and floppy).

Are you still with me? So what you do is pump on the clutch until traction comes back. It took 5 mins of pumping with alternate legs, but it flipping worked! Chuffed, I was ecstatic. I almost feel ready to change the brake pads and fix the petrol filter now.

Much as I would like to end this blog on a positive note, on our way out for tea with friends this afternoon, we discovered the battery was completely flat. Again. In fact it's our landlord's battery, still. So we now have two flat batteries. I wonder what chance he has a spare spare battery......?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Irritable Hip

And then there was Wednesday...

My daugher started complaining of a sore leg (which 1st hurt when playing football on Sat). She was hobbling around, and by evening in a lot of pain.

So I did what all good mothers do at this point, administered large doses of Calpol and put her to bed.

By morning, she couldn't walk at all. She was in a lot of discomfort, couldn't put any weight on it, or even walk, and the hip joint was very painful whenever she moved it.

So for the second time this week I took her out of nursery and we went to the clinic. The Dr was perplexed and sent her for an x-ray at another private clinic where they fortunately ruled out tumours, cysts and infection in the bone. However he told me all the things he was considering, slipped growth plate, rheumatoid arthritis, early onset arthritis

He also said you can sometimes get a virus going to a joint. However, he said he was concerned by her degree of pain and lack of mobility and said it certainly wasn't subtle, the discomfort she was in.

I carried her the 15 min walk from 1 clinic to the other, and then back again, which my back didn't enjoy greatly. Living up 3 flights of stairs didn't help either. I spent the day carrying her to the loo, and fetching and carrying things she requested from the sofa. I think she rather enjoyed that part.

My sister, a physio, helpfully suggested a tip; put her on a blanket and pull her along, (which would save my back), but knowing her cries of 'faster, faster' and 'ride like the wind, cowboy' when on the back of my bike, I rather feared this would further encourage her view of me as general lackey and whipping boy.

The Dr had admitted he was worried by her symptoms but said we could see how it goes over the next few days, and if not better, he said we would need to progress to MRI and ultrasound, which he recommended doing 'in another country' because of the orthopedic and paediatric expertise and experience needed.

M says they would fly us back to the UK. I hope our health insurance would cover us for that; I had visions of driving alone across the mountains into Macedonia being the only 'abroad' the insurance would cover us for....

She remained immobile, very tearful and in a lot of pain for the rest of the day.

Friday morning I am awoken by my daughter coming into my room saying: "I can walk Mummy."

And sure enough she could. She was hobbling around, but definitely walking. My son had even been putting her through her paces in their room before coming in, with a rigorous programme of hopping, skipping and even running. Throughout the day she got more and more mobile and was completely pain free.

A Dr friend had written to me, saying there is a complaint called 'Irritable Hip' caused by a viurus I think, which is very common, and is self limiting.

By the end of the day you wouldn't have believed there had been anything wrong. It was the most bizarre, brief 'illness' I have encountered.

(Except perhaps for that time when I was 10 I had had a thing called 'post-viral rheumatism' when I had sore joints & couldn't walk and was bed-ridden for 6 weeks.) Nasty things viruses, whatever country you're in.

So on Friday morning (after the school run) when I noticed I had a flat tyre, I felt positively blase. I thought: 'Yup, I can do this. Flat tyre. No problem'

Never mind that I have little working knowledge of the language, am female and foreign and therefore ripe for ripping off. And have no idea where to go. Still, one more day of the w/e before I need the car again.

Resilience that's what it's all about.

Still it's been a VERY long week.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Bad Hair Days & The Kindness of Strangers.

Ok, so the Pollanna smile has slipped a bit.

Turns out that was only the beginning.

On Sunday night, just as I had finished putting the children to bed, washed up, made sandwiches for the next day, I sat down at the computer (still get a little frisson, being able to say that, after 8 mths without) And the power went off. Probably just as well, or I'd have seen photos of my husband posing outside the temples at Angkor Wat. Looking very happy. And curiously relaxed.

The power stayed off till 11 a.m on Monday: which meant I cdn't shower and wash my hair (again) The water works on an electric pump. We have a reserve tank on the roof, but too much of a trickle to power the shower.

Oh, but then there was Sunday night, I almost forgot. It went like this:
Midnight: My son wakes me up crying because he's scared of the dark (no lights , power cut remember?) So he climbs into my bed (I know, plse don't quote the 'Mores of Successful Child Rearing' to me)

1a.m Daughter wakes me up saying she's had a bad dream. So she climbs into my bed.

3 a.m Daughter falls out of bed. Manages to stay securely in her single bed, night after night. However, the night she decides to join me in the king size bed, she falls out.

4.30 a.m Woken again. Daughter thirsty this time.

5.30 a.m Thunder and lightning begin again, in earnest, waking me up.

Daughter still has a fever and has added diarrhoea into the equation, so no school, but she still has to come with me to the Government Car Registration Bureau. this is not all bad, as a friend told me being female and blonde might speed my application process, so I figure a sick, sniffling child might swing it further in my favour. It's a tried and tested method in many countries.

It starts off surprisingly well, I mean we are offered a chair to sit on, there are not too many sharpened elbows in action. It seems almost civilised, there's even a system of sorts. We have a booth number and wait for it to vacate. A man is even keeping watch on who's where in the queue.

I have all 7 documents the previous official said we needed to register the car in our name, plus all the documents notarised by a lawyer, even power of attorney given me by my kind husband so I can collect the documents for him. And be allowed to drive it. However once speaking to the (new) official, we are told the car needs a 'physical' and we don't have it. Essentially the same as a human physical. The MOT certificate was not good enough.

I tried to argue that we had been told all the documents were in place and I had everything I needed. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread...

The Albanian who took me said this is quite normal, the drip feeding of information, so that you have to go away, get whatever else is needed, and then return and begin again. . I'm told it's no good trying to be clever and asking exactly what each and every document you need is, before you go, or even whilst there.

This seems to happen in so many bureaucratically constipated developing nations. Happened to us all the time in Sri Lanka. Also what you need seems to change between visits, sometimes originals, sometimes photocopies. In Albania, every photocopy has to be taken to a lawyer to be notarised.

So we went away. As my daughter really wasn't very well, my husband's Albanian work colleague, bless her, took my car, got its physical done, it was given a clean bill of health, and she took the papers back again alone. I won't go into what we had to do to get THAT arrangement accepted by the official. Suffice to say NO money passed hands.... She brought the car back, and was going to collect the document for me the next day. So actually it wasn't that bad. I went once, this colleague will have been 4 times in total on our behalf. for which I am truly grateful. And she does this stuff every day as part of her admin job for M's NGO. Poor woman.

This morning. I was teaching at my son's school, so had to drop my daughter off, then drive to school with my son. The power was still off. Managed a chilly wash in shower dribble. Still haven't washed hair though. Government official probably wouldn't even acknowledge me as a blonde in my current state.

7.31a.m Pouring with rain STILL. We all jump in the car, I switch on. Nothing. our car which passed its medical with flying colours, only yesterday afternoon, has died.

I immediately call the school, and say that, although yes, we have bought a car which we've had for 4 whole days, it has, in fact, snuffed it, and could I have a lift from the caretaker after all? (our previous arrangement) I am teaching there for free, so I don't feel too bad.

Then I call my husband's work, and ask the colleague (who in fact killed my car) if she could send one of the drivers over to help me.

Meanwhile, unnoticed in this organisational flurry, my landlord steps out of his door, staggering under the weight of a car battery, asks me to open the bonnet, armed with spanner, unscrews my battery, a few sparks fly, puts his spare in and says "off you go, you'll be fine now". All well and good. Mini-crisis over. Car risen from the dead.

Now all I had to do was undo all the contingency plans I had just made.

I arrived at school 45 mins late for my son, and 1 min before my 1st lesson began. However, it was fine, as I had that tried and tested method of all experienced teachers, firmly in my grasp. Winging it.

The power stayed off most of the day, but hey it's on now, I've had my computer fix, and now I must go and make use of the oven whilst I have electricity and make some chocolate brownies for my landlord. And then of course, I MUST wash my hair.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Earache and Electrical Storms

M has just left for a two-week trip to Cambodia. For work, though he is managing to squeeze in some sight seeing too. I should really have been better prepared. ‘Something’ always happens when he goes away, especially when he goes away to another country.

Sure enough my 4 yo developed earache and a temperature over 100’. So I had a very broken night followed by a huge electrical storm which began at 5.30 a.m (waking me up again). The storm lasted all day until 5 p.m coupled with an all day power cut too. We couldn’t go out, it was chucking it down, my daughter was ill, the flat was very dark, we couldn’t cook, wash, eat toast, or watch DVDs. The washing and ironing I was less concerned about. Situations like this make you resourceful (as well as slightly unhinged)

I was also aware that earache can suddenly get very bad, and one needs antibiotics. The clinic is closed today, and even Albanians tell you to steer clear of the hospital.

I had my “Your Child’s Health Abroad” book and, as you can buy antibiotics from pharmacies I decided I wd self-prescribe if I had to. (And check with my long-suffering brother of course).

Tomorrow is also complicated: I have to go to a government office to get our car insurance verified etc. It took M 2 ½ hrs last week, with all the correct documentation, and he still didn’t get very far. I have a number in the queue and a date, Monday 15th but no appointment. If I don’t go tomorrow I start all over again. So I need A to be well, and I need to NOT need to go to a pharmacy until I get back from there.

So far not so very bad, but when I look back, it is uncanny, or unlucky, how often my other half is away when I have a crisis. First there was the time I went, in the space of a week, from a visit to the dr, to a diagnosis in hospital of grapefruit sized ovarian cysts on my ovaries, (suspected ovarian cancer) to being whisked in for surgery. And yes you guessed it, M was away. In China. He also had no mobile phone then, and I had no way of contacting him. (For the record he was back before the surgery and it turned out to be endometriosis)

Then there was the time my daughter, aged 360 days, turned blue and couldn’t breathe and was hospitalised for a week with bronchiolitis. The Good Man? Philippines this time. With a mobile phone. It was broken, he’d typed in one too many wrong pin codes and it shut down on him. No contact for 9 days. It’s quite hard to explain, in hind sight, to a blissfully ignorant husband, just exactly what has gone on the previous week, and just how isolated and tough it was, when we are there back in the house where he left us, a little pale but otherwise ok, as if nothing had happened. On that occasion at least, we were in Oxford with our support network around us.

Oh and one week after arriving in Sri Lanka on our 1st overseas posting, me feeling more wobbly than a tightrope walker in stilettos, our daughter is hospitalised again, this time with Pneumonia (we later got the diagnosis of a genetic defect Left Pulmonary Sling) On this occasion, only 8 days after arriving in the country, My Good Man was in Kandy 6 hrs away. This time it took me an hr to track him down there and tell him to come home. Being very new in the country we didn’t have mobile phones,

I guess I should count myself lucky he was in the country for the births of our two children. Although considering how long number 1 took to arrive, he would have had more than enough time to get home, even from Australia shd he have needed to. But that’s another story…

Despite being married for 17 yrs, I often feel like a single parent. I go to school event s alone, parents’ evenings, performances. Summers I spend back in the UK with the children (that’s our choice I know, but it’s important to us that we create memories for the children, reconnect friendships, and a sense of where they are from) M only gets 20 days so it’s spread quite thinly over the yr; something you notice more when you are trying to factor in catching up with family and friends (which in normal circumstances you’d do at w/es) as well as being with your family on holiday.

I don’t resent him being away exactly, I think it’s made me very resourceful, though his description of nosing round markets, eating a Khmer chicken curry, visiting Angkor Wat before his conference, did hold a certain allure for me I must confess this w/e), it’s just that I feel so vulnerable with the children, and also weary of dealing with crises alone. After all isn’t that what marriage is about, sharing the crises, and riding the storms together? Somehow regaling him with the edited highlight s after the event isn’t quite the same.

The vulnerability comes particularly, again, from being away from home and support networks and known procedures too, not speaking the language, not having gd medical facilities, being alone often, and having no transport in a city where biking is dangerous, buses are very complex and taxi drivers don't speak English. And roads aren't referred to by names, or indeed rarely have a name. The address of our flat, for example, is a description, not an address, on our rental contract.

For 8 mths. I have been biking everywhere, with my 4 yo on the back of my bike, and my 8 yo on his little bike, dodging the very real hazards of the Tirana roads. Many cars here are stolen, insurance write offs, been in an accident or have inadequate papers. Trying to buy a vehicle is a minefield.

On another occasion back in June M was actually with us. We were coming back from a 4 day camping trip to Macedonia, and our son, who gets hay fever, was getting progressively worse and started wheezing. By the next day he was in a very bad way. The Dr's is too far to bike to with children so M took us in a work vehicle. Our 8 yo was given subutanol syrup which made not a jot of difference, and by late that day he was in a real state and really struggling to breathe.
We asked work colleagues what hospital to take him to, they said ‘you don’t want to go to hospital here’. We also discovered my husband’s NGO had not registered us with the clinic (we are only their 2nd ex-pat so induction has been largely non-existent) so we didn't have access to the emergency number. I tried to find out the number, available only to ‘members’, from the 6 people I knew well enough to have their numbers. 5 had left the country for the summer, and one was teaching & her phone was switched off.

In the end, in desperation, I called our son’s Headmaster because his number was on a school letter. I really didn’t know who to turn to. As it happened he was at that moment going to the Dr's for supper, so he called him, he opened the clinic and spent an hr with our son giving him steroids, teaching him to use a spacer and calming him down.

But maybe actually I just have a too Western, 21st century woman’s expectation of how much a husband should be around and helping.

I do know many, many countries, where people work far away or even in other countries just to have a job and feed their families. They may see their families once a yr if they are lucky.

And these medical situations I’ve been in make me realise how vulnerable the poor are, ALL the time. Imagine the stress of knowing you simply can’t be ill, because you have to show up at work to get paid in order to eat, and you literally couldn’t afford the fees of being ill.

The Roma live in leaking corrugated shanty towns, they pick through the bins to find stuff to recycle which they get money for, the Poor Albanians live next to them, and dig for iron on an old factory site to eek out an existence.

I don’t have to consider selling a child, in order to feed my other children. We are warm and secure and eat three times a day.

And then I remind myself that it is actually for these people that we’re here, doing what we’re doing. We didn’t move overseas for a better or easier life but to help those who are in far worse a position than us.

So instead of thinking about the exotic sights, the lie-ins, the buffet breakfasts, stimulating lectures etc my husband is enjoying, I remind myself that this morning my 8 yo mopped up the outside table and chairs from the rain, laid breakfast, got everything ready whilst my daughter and I slept in. He even offered her breakfast in bed and brought her her Dora magazines to read.
After 8 mths we have a car, a solid, old, battered but reliable 4x4, which cost less than half anything else we’d seen. bought from an old missionary who’d lived here for 10 yrs. The day he flew out, he phoned with a few more bits of info about the car and said he & his wife were 'praying it would serve us well and be great for our family'. I mean, how nice is that?

The power came back on after 6 hrs, we watched a DVD together, had sausages and mash, a hot bath and went to bed.

Oh and my daughter’s earache has gone.

So now all I have to do is tackle the government bureau tomorrow. Life's really not so bad.