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.