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... 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......?