Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Park Part Three - Snakes and Satin Blouses

The worst encounter I’ve had in the park so far was caused by a 2 ft long snake slithering across my path. And that was only intriguing really. One feels quite safe on a bike somehow. I forget of course that Albania is the Mediterranean really, and therefore has snakes. The park lulls you with its gentle, green deciduous look of an English park (with a few tree species exceptions). People seem unbothered and picnic quite happily in the long grass. Since Sri Lanka I have been conditioned to be phobic about long grass.

As I bike along I constantly hear skitterings in the bushes from lizards and the slower noise, presumably of snakes. Not sure if any are poisonous. Funny, having lived in Africa and Asia and never encountered a single snake, I meet one within 4 months of arriving in Albania, on a busy tarmac path too. Knowing it’s not a Cobra or Krait and probably harmless, makes for an interesting rather than scary encounter. But I realise I should get a reptile book, and check it out before getting too blasĂ©.

The other encounter I had where I came off worst was only in a sartorial way. Albanian women really dress up, and, despite the atrocious roads and broken up pavements, they all wear heels, stilettos, you name it, the more impractical the better. And everyone walks everywhere too. It’s mad.

I have rarely worn heels ever since the (short) boys in my sixth form used to tease me mercilessly for being ‘too tall’. I am only 5 foot 8” so hardly Goliath proportions. Just goes to show how short they were that they needed an attention deflector. Me. But I was very self-conscious, and so felt uncomfortable towering over my male peers. Even having married someone of 6ft 3” I still don’t wear high heels. Maybe it’s a throwback to being 16 or maybe it’s just because I can’t walk in them.

But here I feel positively out of place NOT wearing heels. One day I was in one of the only play parks in Tirana, and a mum was there pushing her little girl on the swing. This mother was wearing a lime green satin blouse with puffed and ruched sleeves, a puffball skirt and kitten heel mules. And she was in the playground…? I felt distinctly frumpy and British in my bike helmet and Birkenstocks.

I am happy to dress up when the occasion demands, in fact I like doing so, just hadn’t realised the park was one such social engagement. Is that a cultural difference, how one views a trip to the park with the kiddies?? Or is it that clothes are seen as decorative and not functional? That would certainly seem the case here, where practical dressing would see you in wellies, and a duvet coat in the very wet winters, and flip flops and a wide brimmed hat in the hot, dry summers. And a mask to protect you from the pollution and dust all year round.

The Grand Park - Part Two

I gather there is quite a ‘Bois du Boulogne’ element to the park, but apart from some covert coke snorting behind trees, and the usual dodgy dealing that goes on in every street and cafĂ© in Albania, I have seen nothing untoward, with the possible exception of the 'pensioners in pants’

Now that the sun is well and truly out in Albania and has been for some time, the sunbathers have appeared. I must say people reckon Britain has the last word in Mad Englishmen who at the faintest whiff of a ray of watery sun, whip their shirt off and don their shorts, but of course keep their socks on with their sandals…

But I have to say Albanian men are one up on the Brits on this one. I have passed numerous men walking along in jeans, and lace up shoes but sporting vests, which are rolled up to their midriff. If you have a protruding belly so much the better, but half mast vests are very ‘de jour’. Then there is the chap who wanders round in underpants and socks carrying a flimsy bag, which clearly does not contain the rest of his clothes. Apart from this he seems quite normal… Men seem to be sun mad here, whilst the women shield their faces with a book or paper (in a very familiar ‘hot country’ gesture) and carry parasols or umbrellas.

But I have to say it’s the pensioners in pants who win the prize. Now most of the elderly men in the park are soberly dressed in dark suits, hats and buttoned up shirts with no concession to the sun, but then there’s the others. To be fair there are only 4 of them as far as I can tell. I had thought it was happening all over the place, but as I have 4 opportunities a day to witness this, I have gradually identified it as a group of 4 geriatric sun worshippers who are always in the same place, where they hang all their clothes on trees, except for their (very white) pants, a newspaper or white hat on the head, AND socks and lace up shoes. They mostly stand around hands on hips like cormorants drying their wings, turning every now and then to bronze another angle of their already ‘polished chestnut’ torsos. Occasionally they move around, walk over to the war memorial, totally unself-consciously. Certainly more cormorant than peacock. Except of course that it’s all in aid of a suntan…

I guess it’s all about context. On the beach one wouldn’t blink, but because it’s on the main drag through a park, past the cafe, and prams, and dog walkers, it’s a trifle disconcerting, A bit like the “I had one of those dreams where I was naked in a public place and everyone around me was clothed” scenarios. The socks & black lace up shoes add a surreal dream-like quality to the scene. (Unless of course you are an Englishman having this dream, in which case it would seem perfectly normal no doubt.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Meat Markets

The supermarkets and markets are sheer bliss here after Colombo. If you like Italian food, you’ll be fine. However there is plenty that is unfamiliar still. Not the strange vegetables this time, but the meat. I feel like a rather myopic pathologist as I peer closely at the meat on offer, trying to ascertain what it is, as I have forgotten yet again the Albanian for pork or lamb. Chicken and beef are easy to identify. Pork and lamb less so, all the meat is quite ‘mature’ so, dark, but then there is veal, turkey, mutton, rabbit, and the meat is more often than not in chunks or slabs, or hacked off in an unrecognisable way so I can’t tell if it’s a leg of lamb or a skinned turkey leg. My Delia Smith diagrams of meat cuts are useless here.

However some things are very obvious and take a little getting used to. Haven’t plucked up the courage to ask for 400g of chicken necks yet, or a sheep’s head, yes please with eyeballs. And all manner of offally bits.

My daughter seems characteristically un-phased by our meat shopping, however uncertain it makes me feel sometimes. On one occasion there was a whole skinned rabbit lying in its plastic tray. “Oh look Mummy, Dinosaur-Chicken”, she observed, as if that’s what we always got for Monday supper….

I guess in the UK we have completely lost touch with the whole food chain, where food comes from, and how it ends up on our tables.

So for me the Elbasan Road is quite traumatic. As you are driving south out of Tirana, you pass the slaughterhouses. Actually that’s rather a grand name. In fact it is just men by the road slaughtering cows and sheep, next to their sheds (‘slaughter houses’) So far we have managed to spot incredibly interesting sights on the opposite side of the road, but I guess the time must come when our children not only discover that meat doesn’t grow on trees in little polystyrene trays, but also to see how they are dispatched, complete with animals queuing up and blood running down the sides of the roads….

Still, I do count myself lucky I’m not a British woman I met, who married an Albanian, a military captain, who has travelled and is very ‘European’ in many ways. But the food angle of their marriage has been an education for her. He expects proper MEAT on the table every night. The fact that they can’t afford it is not his concern, she has to find a way. She had diarrhoea for the entire 1st year of her marriage living in Albania, as she tried to acclimatise to visiting the In-Laws and eating in their village and drinking village milk etc.

But the final straw for me I think would have been the pig. Her In-Laws breed a pig for them every year. The first year of her marriage they presented her with this pig. Well, to be fair, it was hanging from a tree, so I suppose she could be grateful it was already dead. Her husband says to his new wife. “There you are, can you just chop it up and put it in the freezer” She said “No I can’t, my ‘Complete Cookery Course’ doesn’t tell me how to do that…” (So, Delia’s fault again) He was astonished that she had no idea how to do this. His reply was

“Well you’ll need an axe”

To her credit, she didn’t jump on the next plane home, but faithfully chops up her pig and puts it in the freezer once a year. And I have to say it is delicious… and he gets meat on the table every night.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Grand Park

I got taken to the park, the "Grand Park" when we first arrived. It's huge, where people used to come on holiday during communism. Now it's full of people strolling around, having coffees, playing dominoes, full of football fanatic youths running in groups, and men from the military compound in the middle of the park doing a training run. It always has people in it, but still maintains a peaceful, unhurried, tranquil atmosphere.

Children in Albania only go to school in the morning or the afternoon, not both, so there are always children. Otherwise it's mostly older folk, mostly in single sex groups and mums, or grandparents with toddlers. You see lots of grandfathers actually, with a young child in tow. The extended family unit is very strong here.

Albanians kiss their children a lot. My daughter is always getting accosted in shops by assistants kissing her, much to her indignation. You often see these grandfathers in the park cupping the child's face in their hands and kissing them. It's a curiously feminine gesture I think, but very tender and touching. Conversely the women seem to do more of the cheek pinching and smothering with kisses. It is also a potent reminder that I am not in repressed old England (with the possible exception of my Father-In-Law of course who is very 'Albanian' in this way)
...I digress.

My 1st surprise in the park, was the concrete barriers across the wide tarmaced paths. After enquiring, I discovered these are to stop people driving their cars through the park, as it is a short cut across the bottom of town. Of course it is prohibited to do so, but that is insufficient a deterrent. This was my 1st introduction to the 'anarchy' which to me, a law abiding Brit, colours the driving habits of Albanians. It really is Wild West meets Boy Racers. Not a pleasant combo, particularly if you are caught between the two on a bike. But don't get me started, that's a blog for another day.

The second thing I noticed was that not only were there these concrete barricades, but on either side of the path where the trees were thinner, there were huge ditches dug out. These evidently are to stop the determined Tiranans driving through the trees, 'off road' as it were, to get around the barriers and into the park. It's not just a short cut; I am told that these cars are often occupied by couples looking for a quiet canoodling spot, particularly in a country where 3 generations live together in one apartment. However to my (female) mind, a male suitor dodging barricades in his car (& it is always the men driving)and using trees as slalom posts simply in order to find a quiet, leafy corner, smacks of desperation that is hardly seductive. Perhaps I'm just old fashioned. Then again perhaps I'm just old.

Anyway, the park. I like it. I bike through it 4 times a day to take my daughter to nursery and back. It is leafy, shady, expansive, and full oflots of little off road tracks. Having been in Asia for 2 yrs, it is very different in a very European way(Balkans and Mediterranean combined). There are old men wearing black hats orberets, carrying worry beads, other groups of old men playing dominoes, the women, in the summer carry Japanese style parasols, the older ones are usually dressed in black, and they all pick flowers. Young and old, thewomen all collect the wild flowers; break off stems of blossom, to take home. I know in Britain we can't pick wild flowers and we are conditioned not to do it, but there is something touchingly innocent and refreshing about seeing adults gathering armfuls of such mundane flowers as buttercups and cow parsley, but also appreciating the beauty of all the fabulous wildflowers here, enough to want to take them home and put them in a vase.

You can tell this city is full of apartment-living; people appreciate thepark, it is fully used.. It reminds me of when I lived in Paris and I toomade full use of the sunbathing, book reading facilities laid on by apublic park, when confined to life in a flat.

It is Albanian custom to take a walk; a stroll in the evening is called the xhiver. But if not just walking, there are only two activities laid on inthe park, one is rifle shooting, the other is weighing yourself. The rifle shooting is astonishingly popular amongst the Tirana youth. I amamazed, that this wouldn't seem a bit tame, in a country which until a few years ago was overtly flooded with weapons, and certainly 10 yrs ago it could be dangerous to walk down the street, in town, in daylight. As far as I have heard there are still plenty of weapons knocking around, it's just the gun battles aren't out there on the streets anymore. Well not in the centre, you do hear gunshots occasionally though, in some parts of town, at night.

Anyway the men of Tirana obviously like to keep their eye in I guess with its history you never know when you might have to take upweapons again. I also, rather belatedly, discovered that these 'rifle ranges' are not always set up with concerns for public safety paramount. I was sitting quietly on a park bench on one occasion, when the 'shooting' started. Rather close at hand. I looked over to see that this man had set up his target parallel to, and ½ metre from, the public footpath, and if the customer concerned was even a slightly bad shot, I was 'for it', as they say. Still, I moan about Nanny Britain, and Albania at least is certainly not that.

The other activity, is usually an old-ish man sitting on a park bench witha pair of bathroom scales in front of him. They are not just in the park;these solitary gentlemen are all over town. For some reason, I've never seen a woman doing it. I can see it's a way to make money, but is it? I mean, why? Are there that many people out there who want to weigh themselves regularly??Anyway for now I'm sticking to biking and walking in the park.

Actually my bike provides another activity for people; 'gawping' and occasional closer inspection. You see being a Westerner, with all the concomitant trappings, I have my daughter on the back on a child bike seat. In a country where, like Sri Lanka, people ride side saddle on the cross bar, and certainly you can't buy child seats here, it is clearly a cause for much curiosity and comment as we sail past. One German called out hello and 'where are you from?' when she saw me, knowing I wasn't 'local', saying she thought she was the only one in the city with a child seat.

On one occasion I got flagged down by an old boy asking me to stop. He then walked round my bike, examined how the seat was fixed on, tested its sturdiness, and then smiled politely, said thank you and off he went. It certainly turns heads. Unfortunately it will probably turn my daughter's head too. My diva-in-waiting has probably by now convinced herself that she is indeed a celebrity (-princess no doubt) and people are marvelling at her in her slave drawn carriage. She has been known to yell 'faster, faster mummy', or 'Ride like the wind, cowboy' (Toystory 2) or similar imperious commands. It's all down hill from here, I fear. So to speak.

On other occasions, she completely ignores her audience and simply sits back reading one of her Dora comics, whilst I slog away up the hill. I didn't mention it's a very hilly park did I? Well, it is, and the extra 30kgs on the back, of seat plus princess, makes me empathise greatly with the rickshaw drivers back in Asia.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Economies of Scale

Well here we are in Albania. Our second posting. Here's where we start all over again. Again.

We have moved from a humid tropical island of 20 million to a tiny European country of 4 million, which is 90km wide at its 'fattest' point. We have moved from a capital city of 2.2 million, to a capital of 700,000. Although as Tirana is a glorified building site (without the glory actually) that number is obviously predicted (by someone) to grow, judging from the number of apartment blocks more than anything, which are springing up.

We have gone from streets full of cows, stray dogs, bullock carts and tuktuks, to (equally congested) streets full of Mercedes (mainly stolen). In Sri Lanka the streets seemed to be full of women mainly, in vivid,colourful saris. Here in Albania, my 1st impression is that everyone wears black (or shades of grey or brown) and it's men on the streets, in groups, in the cafes, predominantly. It feels very masculine.

It seems to be economies of scale that have struck me most. Here there area few100 ex pats. (With only about 5 NGOs here in total) Even in the first week I was already bumping into the same people. In Sri Lanka, there wereseveral 1000. M will be working with one other ex-pat in an office totalling 5 people, compared to 70 in Colombo.

As for the city, well, I now realise that Colombo was very leafy, green and low-rise, with the sea and a river and jungly undeveloped areas to add to the sense of space. Here it feels quite claustrophobic. Very few green spaces, concrete everywhere and very high rise. It's European style living. Apartments and street cafes ubiquitous.

However there are similarities to make me feel at home. Congestion,pollution,rubbish, pot holes and even giving way on roundabouts, to those joining it.

Our 8 yr old loves his International School, which we are very relieved about. Just as well children don't see things the way adults do. He has gone from 440 to 89 students. 44 nationalities to 14 (50% American), no pool, no gym, no basket ball court, no cricket field, just a small netball-court sized astro turf.Because the school is 50% American, and possibly, the fact that there is only 1 non-American (a Brit) on the Board of Governors, there is a holiday for Thanksgiving (that famous INTERNATIONAL celebration....) and a 12 wk summer vacation U.S style.

To me it feels like moving our son from Radley to the little village school which meets in prefabs. Still, he's happy, and research shows (and this is hardly rocket science) that a child being happy is the most important factor indoingwell at school.It won't be a place to meet parents either. I have never seen such a'masculine school gate', everyone seems to be met by (male) drivers. Don't know why.

I also wonder if I will carry on blogging. Will I have anything to say?Everything, though unfamiliar, feels a bit too normal here. I realize I had become quite fond of the madness and chaos. A teacher at our son's school in Colombo had reassured me that Albania was a 'bonkers' country.

I fear it may not be bonkers enough for me though.... "Fickle, thy name is woman", I know, I know...

Still it's early days, plenty of time for 'bonkers' to rear its reassuringly familiar head I imagine.