Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Winter Wonderland

Not often you can say that about Britain!

Happy Christmas to my precious 17 Followers & anyone else who reads me. Thank you for keeping me going!

Wishing you all a
very Happy New Year.

My two on a snowy walk.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Best Laid Plans Of Mice & Men.......

So Christmas was nearly off for us this year. This was going to be a post about the BA strike, but then it kind of snowballed, if you’ll forgive the pun.

As I said last year in my blog, here Christmas doesn’t really happen in Albania. 25th December is an ordinary working day. Having been a communist state it wasn’t celebrated. It is changing year-by-year, signs that commercial Christmas, at least, is being assimilated: lights, trees, shops selling decorations creeping in etc. But last year it was a bit of a damp squib. Not much festive run up, not much happening, & we felt the kids missed out a bit. So we decided to treat them to a wk in England with grandparents, going to a panto, to Hamleys, to see the Christmas lights in Oxford Street, a carol service, & so on.

However on Monday after the BA strike ballot results we had to break it to our children that actually we weren’t going to be going to England for the Christmas week because of the BA strike. We were 4 of the million people about to be affected by the strike. The children took it surprisingly well. I have come to the conclusion they are used to our unpredictable life. Our son is one of those ‘glass half full’ kind of boys & all our daughter knew was that she wd now get to be a lamb in the end of term nativity play after all.

My husband and I, however, were infuriated. Our chance at a quick getaway from Albania for some festive cheer for the children had been stymied. He had worked for the airline for 12 yrs. & knew what the Unite union was like, from the inside. Because he took voluntary redundancy we are still eligible for staff travel for the length of his service with them. So we get cheap, but standby, flights. He was not an air steward but was in management (boo hiss) He was very careful not to admit this to cabin crew when flying, as ‘management’ is generally seen as ‘the enemy’. The unions have held the airline to ransom for years. Of course pilots, crew & baggage handlers can do this. Without them the company founders. I am glad Willie Walsh is taking them on. Somebody had to sometime.

Oh I could tell you stories about the unions & the deals they have secured; like this one I particularly like, though not a cabin crew one; BA wanted to put CCTV cameras on the baggage belts so they could see quickly where bags had got stuck. The union were in uproar. Invasion of privacy, checking up on them etc. They negotiated a deal eventually that, yes, they would accept the cameras, only on the condition that even if a handler got caught on camera stealing from a bag it, could not be used as evidence against him. Beggars belief hey?

A fellow manager told my husband that when they join BA, cabin crew are given ‘Golden Handcuffs’ which they choose to slip on & then can't bear to remove. With starting salaries at £26,000, rising to £35,000 (double what e.g Virgin stewards earn) & Cabin Services Directors earning £56-£59,000 the strike can hardly be about money. It's not. On staff travel they get 1st class, (because cabin crew look after each other), they stay in 5* hotels when working on flights, & on e.g. a long haul flight their allowances will tot up to £995. People often complain that many BA cabin crew can be miserable or snooty etc. Basically they are probably thoroughly bored, but can’t leave. What other job would earn you this amount with 1st class travel & 5 * luxury thrown in, all for being a glorified waiter?

As we had expected to be in England, we had presents to collect that family hadn’t posted, bike parts, a ski helmet, school texts for me etc. So, after much deliberation, we decided I should go & do a mad 3 day dash, stuff my bags with all the British booty I had to collect & sneak back under the radar on the Sunday before the strike started.

This would mean that the kids got their Christmas presents, I could teach my play next term & my husband could bounce down hills on his new springy front shocks, (suspension forks) and IF the strike should be called off, my husband could bring the children on Saturday 19th. Win-win. As long as he could get back on standby, the flight wasn’t cancelled & it didn’t snow…

So that’s what I did. I must say it is easy to demonise the air stewards &, for all they do not live in the real world with their privileged life style, to be fair they were led astray by the Unite who only asked for a yes/no on the strike/don't strike ballot, they weren’t told it would be a Christmas strike or that it would be 12 days. Many said they wouldn’t have voted for that.

But I have to say however, that on the flight over, I was very impressed by the air steward who dealt superbly with a woman, who after we had ascended through very, very turbulent skies, heavy dense clouds, burst into tears & was in a real state. The steward led her to the back of the plane (behind me) and comforted her, brought her a cup of tea, arranged for the Cabin Services Director to come & explain exactly what was happening when the plane experienced turbulence (not sure if this was because it was beyond her to do so…), kept reassuring her, (which included telling her they had brandys in the trolley should she need them), but basically sat with her, calmed her down & checked in on her throughout the flight.

How this woman had ended up in Tirana (a Brit) when she said she hated flying & clearly had not done it very often I don’t know. On our descent, the air steward talked her through it again, but the woman was in tears again. I must say in all my years flying I have never descended with someone sitting behind me in such a state, whimpering & wailing every time we dropped down a bit. She cried, she squealed, and then kept asking, “What was that?” And “Is this normal?”

So we arrived to bitter temperatures & snow. A friend texted me when I arrived to say the strike was off. Hooray, so I knew my husband & children could come too. This was only the start of the adventures though. I don’t think we could have picked a more eventful week transport & weather wise if we’d tried.

Diary of a Snowy Christmas week in England. What the news today called ”5 Days of Transport Misery.”

Friday. My ebay car, bought in the summer for £450, failed its MOT & needed some pipes replacing which the garage had not been able to get for over 2 wks, (so much for buying a Ford because its parts were cheap & readily available) so I had no transport & my dad (Holder of ‘The Kindest Man in The World’ Award) has uncomplainingly ferried us back & forth to various places numerous times during our stay.
Saturday. My 9 yr old cooks meals for my ‘snowed under with work’ husband back in Tirana. They catch their flight amidst lots of snow, & cancelled flights, but their flight managed to arrive only an hour late. Children got to bed at 1.30a.m. But we're all here. Let the festivities begin!
Sunday. Lovely, uneventful day. Carol service at church, lunch with daughter’s godfather &, excellent as ever, Oxford panto. Oh yes it was (sorry). Children were unfazed by the sight of wild boar, furry rabbits & feathered game hanging in the Covered Market. When you regularly see cows & sheep slaughtered by the road & hung up & skinned, the covered market is tame I guess.
More flights cancelled as weather worsens. Eurostar tunnel closure.

Monday. Fabulous Christmassy day in London. Hamleys, Selfridges window displays, Science museum, Fortnum & Masons, hot chocolate at Maison du Chocolat with our 9 y old’s godfather. My son shows his ‘3rd Culture Kid’ credentials when he innocently asks if we can drink the water the waitress had brought us alongside our hot chocolates. She looks slightly askance, uncertain as to whether this is a joke or not.
We have tea at Patisserie Valerie’s on smart Marylebone High Street, where 10 minutes after arriving they have a power cut. How nice of them. We immediately feel right at home, & the children don’t bat an eyelid but just carry on chatting & playing. However, the waiters are slightly more fazed by this turn of events & we are told we have to leave. We get our tarte au citron fix at ‘Paul’s down the rd.
It has now been snowing very heavily for 2 hours. The roads are slushy, it is freezing. We wait 40 minutes for the ‘every 15minutes’ bus to turn up. It does. It takes us 4 hrs to get back to Oxford. My father, (recent winner of the ‘Most Patient Man in The World’ award), has been waiting 3 hrs for us.
Children get to bed at midnight. Husband packs case to go back to Albania (he cd only spare 2 ½ days from work) We get to bed at 1.15a.m. We get up at 5.15 a.m to get him to the 6 .30 a.m bus to Gatwick. Eurotunnel still closed, everywhere still snowy.

Tuesday. Hubby is very worried about the snow, the roads, cancelled flights, full flights, getting fired (his boss told him it was very risky & unwise to go to UK at such a crucial time of his organisation gaining independent financial status, if he couldn’t guarantee getting back). He was fielding calls from the Bank of Albania, his lawyer & his NGO before he even knew if he had a seat on the flight. Turned out there were 5 commercial passengers ahead of my husband’s staff standby ticket. By some miracle he got on. Phew.

Went carol singing round my parents' village with my oldest. Beautiful, clear starry night.

Britain has ground to a halt. We fly back on Christmas Eve. I will let you know if we get back on the flight & get back in time to buy a turkey (at least you can buy them ‘Ready Dead’ in Albania now.)
Our flight is also full & we are on standby. And it’s still snowing…

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Funny Stories

Last night was one of those occasions when I felt, “I really like this living abroad experience.” (It happens more often now.)

We were having a meal with the director of my husband’s NGO & his wife & his American boss & his wife who were visiting from Cyprus. We hosted it because for people like him who travels loads for work & is constantly in different countries & bland hotels/guesthouses, visiting a home & having a home cooked meal then becomes the novelty & a treat.

We have done this a few times now, & I love it because I get to meet the people my husband works with & his work becomes more real to me, but also because you meet like minded people, from all over the world with whom you share a common purpose & you get to know some fascinating people who have lived in interesting places all over the world.

And when you live in these sorts of places as an NGO worker, life is much more unpredictable, unusual or unexpected things happen & (in hindsight of course) it can often be very funny.

So it was inevitable that conversation turned to people we’ve all known who always seemed to have a mine of interesting stories to tell as a result of living in some of these places.

I still remember a colleague who was visiting us from Bosnia with his wife, who was just such a person. He told us the story of having to dive under his table in the, then only, Italian restaurant in Tirana in 1996, to avoid the bullets as a gunfight broke out between 2 rival families. A waiter & 2 customers were killed.

He tells these stories in such a dead pan, matter of fact way, & indeed they probably are to him because this sort of thing happens to him all the time, even though he’s ‘just an NGO worker’, not a war correspondent or anything. However he said his closest shave was one time in Bosnia in the 90s when he got kidnapped; sack over the head, bundled into the back of a van etc. Fortunately they weren’t very professional & he fought his way out somehow. He said he knew he had to do something immediately if he was to have any chance, before he got driven into the middle of nowhere.

The funny thing about the story though, was his wife interrupting him, saying,

“What? You never told me you’d been kidnapped! How come I don’t know this 15 yrs on?”

Strange the secrets a man, well this man, keeps from his wife...

It was, in fact, funny though, not awkward, as she herself recognises this is typical of him & the scrapes he gets into. In some ways it’s probably better she doesn’t know.

Then the conversation turned to our own funny stories & unusual incidents. I liked our American visitor’s story best because it really summed up for me the nature of these cross cultural experiences living abroad, namely: lack of resources, unpredictability, the need to improvise, to be resourceful, flexible & adaptable. And the ability to laugh at your situation.

Our friend had been living in Moscow in an 8th floor apartment (15 yrs ago) & had slipped a disc badly. He was bed ridden for a few weeks, & realised he would have to call International SOS & get medivacced out to have it sorted.

Of course International SOS had to use their counterpart in Russia. So 2 stereotypically butch male nurses arrived (in order to lift him onto the gurney). This gurney, by accident or design, was actually slightly convex instead of concave, so he was in even more agony. They negotiated him into the lift, which refused to work. Remember, he was 8 floors up, unable to move, on a hospital trolley.

Exemplifying the 1st pre-requisite of living in a developing country: the need to be a jack of all trades & to improvise & ‘make a plan, one of the nurses, undeterred, took the front off the control panel in the lift & proceeded to rewire it until he got the lift to work.

Once at the bottom of the apartment block, our American emerged, feet first on his trolley, to the awaiting.........hearse. There was no ambulance available which could accommodate a prone 6 foot 4 man on a gurney, so a big black hearse had been commandeered into action. The nurse slid him into the back of the hearse & off he went to the airport with his (obviously seasoned) wife giggling helplessly at the sight of her husband’s size 12 feet waggling through the back window of this hearse; no doubt also disconcerting observant passers by.

I imagine he is one of the few people to have had the experience of travelling on his back in a hearse & emerging to tell the tale…

The thing I liked about this evening was that we could empathise with each other’s tales & swap similar experiences with each other. Not that my stories were anything like these. If we had told a story like this in the UK, in many cases, it would be to an audience, it wouldn’t be a shared dialogue, so in a way it made me feel I belonged & less of 'the odd one out'. Group therapy I guess- NGO style.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cyber 'Space'

In that place in my life where there is normally cyber activity, there was only 'space' for the last 2 weeks (of the non cyber variety). We were offline because our landlady forgot to renew our shared subscription, they cut us off 5 days early too & took another 10 days to sort it out & put us back online. Admittedly I now have a netbook, but not an iphone or blackberry. But it is still very inconvenient. We don't even have internet at the school I work in so I have been dashing into the odd cafe with wireless, (there are a few here now), to go online but I am always in a hurry & somehow didn't get around to writing a post. Anyway apologies & I hope someone somewhere out there missed me!

I always rather hope that someone will send a message saying where are you or what's happened, but I guess I don't blog enough or have enough followers for it to be noticed. I was teasing Iota when she was away last week about how silent the Halls of Cyber Space were without the sounds of her comment clogs ringing through the Cyber Ether as she strode around the blogosphere. I am not a Big Noise in Cyber City so I tend to wear slippers & pad silently, or tiptoe apologetically.

Anyway I always think I spend too much time blogging, emailing, ebaying, doing research for my lessons, Facebooking, & still get frustrated because I don't manage to blog that often or read & comment on many other blogs.

So I thought I would have lots of free time this last 2 wks with no internet, but I didn't seem to. It was good in a way, it made me reaslie I don't spend as much time as I thought I did, but it was quiet, without the blogging community, the emails from friends, skype and so on, which my computer companion offers me. We have no road name, no street address (few do in Albania) so no post, no landline either & mobiles are very expensive here, so my computer is my contact with the outside world, my mail, my phone, my main communication.

But it's a good sign that I coped & didn't get depressed, as is the fact that I don't find much time to blog at the moment. It means I am much busier, working a little (which has done wonders for my pyschological well being) & of course being a taxi, as my chidlren have found more things to get involved in, thanks to parents setting up after school clubs etc.

But the evenings are the time I often dip into cyber space, when not struggling with learning Albanian verbs (I keep telling myself its keeping senility at bay & saves me from doing Sudoku), preparing lessons or grading papers. So as I had a little space, I made this. Sorry it's a terrible photo, new camera & it was too close, cdn't focus. The sun, face, hands, feet & flowers are buttons. There's a bit of embroidery but only very simple e.g the flower stems & sun's rays.

My children's school requires indoor shoes (& as of this yr-health & safety rules are creeping in even here- they have to be 'off the floor' in a shoe bag on a peg.) My son wants one now, he's having a kite (geometric shapes equals easy).

I did feel rather like an old 1940s advert with my husband sitting by the fire (ok wood burner) reading the Telegraph (a friend brought it back from his recent visit to the U.K a real British paper in English, you can't be choosy) & me sitting next to him on the sofa sewing. Well at least I wasn't darning his socks (though I have also been known to mend his clothes I must confess) And actually it was very peaceful & quite therapeutic.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Good Day

Today has been a GOOD day. Not only because it has been one of those fantastic Mediterranean Autumn days, after 8 days of non-stop rain, with a sky so blue, you could slap a paint label on it saying 'Cerulean', & any artist would reach for it to paint their sky, with the purity of its pigment.

Not only because my husband has finally, finally got his NGO's licence application into the National bank after 6 months of sweating over legal documents, burning the midnight oil, adapting, re-doing, re-meeting, adjusting, re-wording & nearly giving up & resiging on several occasions. (I am used to the latter reaction now & am quite impressed that it doesn't phase me in the slightest. It's all part of working in a still-developing country) I know this now & I'm proud of him for persevering as I know he always will.

And not only because my son and daughter both got an award for the 'value of the month' last month, 'Respect' Each month a child from each grade is chosen to be rewarded. My son was rejoicing because he said "At last I have a rewad for something other than 'orderliness' (not quite sure what that entails in a school anyway, & probably neither is he....)
And I was rejoicing because I thought what a great thing that my children show respect to otehrs.

The Award vouchers could be used at a cafe for a hot chocolate etc, & there we bumped into his teacher & we spent half an hour chatting to him. My son was so animated talking to her & she was singing his praises & saying how she loved teaching him, & clearly the feeling is mutual. Once more I mused, "This is a good day" when I thought back to last year & the struggles we had with his teacher who seemed so uninspiring & was doing more to switch him off than switch him on.

But mostly this is a good day because today a child's future has been decided. Today my brother & his wife were accepted by the adoption panel to adopt a child. And I am so very proud of them. They have 2 children already but for health reasons my sister-in-law has been advised not to have any more. My brother always wanted a son, but also they always wanted to foster or adopt to give at least one child a second chance. They have put themselves through the gruelling year long process during which a social worker examines the minutiae of their family & married life, delving into all the nooks & crannies, looking for the wood lice under the stones of their life, inviting them to nail their colours to the mast, to decide what they believe about parenting, what their values are, how they deal with different situations, how they resolve conflict etc.

Yesterday a friend of mine who works with the Roma, had to get emergency services here to remove a baby from its Roma mother because it was failing to thrive, & she didn't want it & was neglecting it. If it is put in an orphanage its chances of adoption are very slim. No one wants to adopt a Roma child. Today a child in Britain will be adopted because a panel deemed my brother & sister-in-law 'suitable parents'. Can you imagine going through that whole process only to be told "Sorry , you don't make the grade"?

In Britain there are 59,500 children in care awaiting fostering or adoption. In 2007 only 3,500 were placed in adoptive families. I agree there have to be precautions & processes but with so many children needing adoption & relatively few coming forward, why do they make the process SO difficult & reject a significant number? After all who is a perfect parent & who can necessarily answer the questions satisisfactorily? Does that prove you can parent well?

My sister-in- law, who is actually training to be a social worker, says she thinks the process is very good & that it is for this reason that successful adoption rates are so high. They match the child to the family. She thinks this way is infinitely preferable to adopting a baby which is an unknown quantity. I guess a lot of it comes down to what you believe about nature & nurture.

So now their search begins. They have to decide what degree of issue, problem, disability or abuse they feel willing & able to accept. It is a sobering truth that in the U.K today almost every child available for adoption has come from a drug dependent/alcoholic or abusive backround. The majority of children awaiting adoption are also from black or Asian backgrounds whilst the majority of adoptive parents are White.

It is amazing how complex family life becomes once it is picked apart & analysed. I can't imagine going through such an intrusive process & having to accept someone else decreeing whether I am fit to be an adoptive parent. How many of us would embark on it if we had to go through this process before having a child normally?

We have often wondered ourselves whether we should adopt as we always wanted a large family. We also wonder if we could. I never quite get my head round the idea of it. How could I love a biological child as much as my own, what if we ruined our existing family with a problem child? What if I showed favouritism? We still return to this issue & mull over it, not least because living in the places we have, you see so many children in desperate straits & realise what a massive difference you could make to even one life.

But for now, I am proud of my brother & his wife, & their two children who were very much part of the process, for taking this huge & selfless decision. I am looking forward to meeting the lucky little boy, who is out there somewhere, who will in due course become part of their family.

Monday, November 9, 2009


Our children had a sleepover last weekend. It was with the family we do most things with here. It is wonderful to find real friends when you are abroad. It can take a long time. They have made the biggest difference in us feeling settled & at home here. We do have a small group of friends here now, but they are the only family we are close to. The down side is I always feel we should spread ourselves thinner, have more options, than always be relying on the same friends to do things with. Our children, it seems, have no such qualms. Our son, aged 9, & our daughter, aged 5, get on famously with their 2 girls aged 8 & 9 & their son aged 5 (in fact he's our daughter's best friend/'Prospective Son-in-Law & recipient of kisses.)

They car share every day/play tennis once a week, go to football practice & (apart from the 8 yr old) are all in the same classes, yet still they badger us for play dates. I love the fact that on sleepovers my son aged 9 happily shares a room with their 5 yr old, chatting & playing animatedly with him. And the girls get on very well with my 5 yr old daughter. I love the fact that they all mix & match & get on so well, much as it would be in a big family (in between the squabbling of course) where you play with a wide range of ages. 3rd culture kids do this all the time too. You have to make friends with, & play, with whoever is available in places where there aren't always that many options... It's advantages are that it really teaches your children to be adaptable, flexible & to make the best of the situation they're in.

So the children were wildly excited, they love these sleepovers so much they don't even miss us, or have the slightest wobble. We, too, have often gone away together for a few days even when the children were very small so it was nothing new. We were looking forward to a night out & a Sunday morning lie in.

Except on the following morning I remembered; I hated sleepovers. It's worse than a trip away because we are in our own home, but without the children. It always feels like a foretaste of the empty nest & I'm not ready for that, not even for a little premonition of what it will be like, even though it suddenly dawned on me that our son is, at 9 1/2, slightly more than half way through his childhood at home now.

You wake to the sound of silence. The flat suddenly seems to have expanded & developed echoes. No-one comes bouncing into bed, no clattering of plates as our son lays breakfast (a self appointed task); there's no murmuring & discussion, audible from the next door room, as the children play with a mish mash of lego, 'My Little Pony' & playmobil. Light sabers meet hair accessories, miniature lego ogres battle glittery baby ponies.

I love those sounds, so familiar I hardly register them anymore (like the constantly barking dogs) Until they stop.

To be fair the 'coming into our bed' routine has recently all but stopped. With our son it went on till he was 7, but now he has a sister to play with, who is much less interested in stories, so they play instead. He still comes in for a story occasionally & they always come in to tell us to get up or to ask us to help with something.

Our daughter is much more independent than our son though. So last Sunday, having felt the lack of them on Saturday, my husband called out to our daughter in her bedrooom "Would you like a story?"
"No thank you Daddy."
So I tried:
"Would you like to join us in our nice warm bed?"
Politely, but more firmly, "No thank you mummy, I'm busy playing."

I can see I'm going to be useless at this 'letting go' lark, whereas my daughter has it sussed already.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Prima Ballerina

My daughter did ballet for the 1st time on Friday. She has reached that 'stage' of being very into 'all things ballerina'. I confess myself a little perplexed how these things happen in a little girl who has lived in Asia since she was 20 months old, followed by Albania, so she has not had Angelina Ballerina, Cbeebies, pink-toy-aisles-in-Toysarus indoctrination. Yet I can tick off these stages like a handbook check list of Girl Toddlers. (Admittedly she also features in the extra chapters on "Tree climbing" "Playing Star Wars", "Having Ninja Turtle Sword Fights" & "Spying" for those 'Girl Toddlers Who Have Brothers'. But honestly, with my very unscientific survey, it seems it's nature, though very odd to have 'pink', 'ballet' & 'princess' genes, don't you think?

In Sri Lanka people didn't wear pink, not an Asian colour, doesn't go really with Asian skin. You never saw little girls wearing it. Her friends were from myriad different cultures, we didn't have tv, there weren't toy shops geared to little girls; yet she went through the "Everything Must Be Pink" stage, the "I'm a princess & want to live in a high tower phase", the "I want to dress up as a fairy at a every opportunity" phase, "I'm a mummy & this is my baby" phase (this, at least a logical one) & now here we are safely arrived at the "Ballerina" stage.

I don't remember this stage myself. I do have very vague early memories of doing ballet & not enjoying it much. I have afriend who never grew out of wanting to be a ballerina, she even now, in her 40s, adores ballet, goes regulalry & even queued up, to bid for, & buy one of Darcy Bussells' ballet costumes (it IS absolutely beautiful, & tiny, in all the places you'd like to be tiny).

My daughter had her ballet shoes, but otherwise no 'outfit' She wanted to wear one of her fairy outfits. I persuaded her to put her track suit bottoms (greeted by a look of horror) & her 'twirliest skirt' in her bag, to cover all bases, & promised we would look on eBay for a ballet leotard. She was v keen to have a frothy skirt, wrap over cardi etc. She even put clip on earrings on for school that morning.

She does love dancing but you can see it's more about the outfits & shoes (which she wore ALL weekend afterwards) than the ballet itself. Her 1st comment after the lesson was,

"Mummy they have this changing room which is so lovely. It's full of pretty dresses & costumes for different ballets. It was all she wanted to talk about!

My children get a lift on Fridays so both my son & daughter were dropped off at the ballet school, & I drove to meet them there from the other side of town. However I didn't reckon with the lunch time trafic & got there half an hr after it started. Other mums told me this is ballet Albanian style, it is1 1/2 hrs long (for 5-7 yr olds??) & even that is a concession, when normally Albanians expect you to have lessons three times a week. She also locks the door so parents can't watch once she has started.

So I couldn't get in & rescue my poor son. I was armed with books to read, Nintendo, conversation, as it's too far to go away & come back; but he was trapped in there for the full 1 1/2 hours. I felt terrible. I went & did some shopping & chatted to the other mums. Finally it was time to collect them. We were greeted by the instructor(? What do you call these people, Madame?)

I was 1st in, to get my 9 yr old & apologise profusely for having made him wait so long with 10 little girls,& lots of pink froth & prancing as they did their butterfly impressions.

The ballet teacher greeted me with, "Your son's very gifted."

And around the corner popped my son grinning from ear to ear. He had decided he might as well join in as he was getting bored waiting, & loved it, & now wants to join the class himself. ....

"I can't wait to tell my classmates I'm doing ballet" he said, & added;

"Can you look on ebay for a leotard for me too, mum?"

I love the fact that my son is such a mixture & is very much his own person. He doesnt worry remotely what anyone thinks of him, but sometimes I think he has no sense of self preservation...

My husband took it surprisingly well, all things considered, & who knows, it may improve his footballing skills....

Meanwhile what's the boy's equivalent of a ballet tutu? Just wondering what to put in the ebay search engine....

Friday, October 30, 2009

Cultural Collision

No, not a collision like my near miss on Tuesday, this was a much more entertaining one caused by the differing cultural approaches of me & an Albanian.

I was on my run round the lake (much safer than driving) & when I got to the barrier at one end I do some stretches, mainly ham strings by propping my leg up on said barrier before running back round the lake & home.

Let me set the scene firstly. Many Albanians go out early in the morning as their exercise regime, one of the few communist legacies which seems to have stuck (a throw back to the Mao Tse Tung era when all workers had to do 15 mins limbering up before work) This is not the evening walk or 'promenade' when you stroll out to see & be seen (meditarranean style) in your best clothes, meet friends, take a coffee, chat. No, this is 'for health'. You can smoke the cigarette & get the pure caffeine shot later.

It is quite remarkable the exerceises one sees going on, there are old ladies hanging from trees, (this is no exaggeration, they really do find a low hanging branch, grab on & hang. Don't know quite what muscle group this is targetting); there are men touching their toes with alternate straight arms like propellors picking up speed, or doing such vigorous neck exercises you fear a severe case of whiplash. It's one of those scenarios you often see in developing countries, rare now in the West (where peole have all the gear & all the books/dvds/equipment etc) where people don't have the correct clothes or shoes & clearly know they should be doing some exercise but who have never seen an exercise video, or a book & don't know the proper way to do it, so there are frankly some hilarious sights. I think it's great though that people are out there & doing stuff.

I don't want to sound patronisng it just IS a very funny sight sometimes the things you see, but it's hardly surprising when you've lived under this particular communist regime with such restricted access to anything, there is a vast chasm of knowledge to catch up. It can make people seem very unworldly & naive in many ways. Not jaded & Western!

Anyway today I got my come-uppance.

There I was stretching at the barrier when along trots a little oldish lady, who reminded me of an apple, she had rosy cheeks, was very round & small. She was wearing a very old, very thick tracksuit with those little pop sox tights & navy blue leather lace ups on her tiny feet. Normal Albanian style exercise attire.

She walked over to me gym mistress style saying "Jo, Jo, Jo" (No no no), slapped my supporting leg as she (bravely) ducked under my spasming leg up on the barrier & pushed my knee back to make me straighten my leg. Ouch. Certainly got that stretch going.

Then she faced the barrier & nimbly flung her leg up onto the barrier herself, which was about 3ft high, (much higher for her than for me at 5ft 8), revealing a surprisingly slim, elegant little ankle, (well turned I think the phrase is) & then swivelled round so her leg was at more than 90 degrees to the rest of her body & proceeded to bounce up & down to touch her toe on the ground with a perfectly straight leg & then the one on the barrier as though she were in fact made of rubber & not fibre & pectin at all. Despite this, apple bobbing still sprang to mind.

Albanians do this; they tell you if you are too fat, not wearing enough clothes in winter, that it's time you had another baby, that you should look after your husband better. Nothing is sacred. I have an aquaintance here who was told "You know you'd be really beautiful if you weren't so fat" And they genuninely do not think they are being rude. It's normal here. You give it & you take it.

And in my case, it was to keep a straight leg when stretching my ham string. I was doing it wrong (in her mind) so she was doing me a favour helping me get my exercise regime right.

I was just trying to imagine this sceanrio playing out in a London gym & going up to a lissome gymbunny clad in shiny co-ordinating lycra (not that I'm comparing myself to the latter of course) & saying "I'm frightfully sorry but actually you should be keeping that leg straight, bend slowly, breathe, hold your tummy in. There much better. No problem, glad I could help."

No, I just can't see it happening & coming out alive.

I love it, makes life so much more interesting, I'm looking forward to my next run already. Who knows what tips I'll pick up, or maybe I'll unlock the secrets of the tree hangers. I just need to go & hang from a branch & see what advice I get.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Another Hazardous School Run

I hadn't intended this to become a mini series, but this is "Albanian School Run- The Sequel" And sadly no Jason Bourne to the rescue.

I was driving down the very wide Boulevard away from Mother Theresa Square. This road is paved with bricks & is 3 lanes wide each way (no lane markings again so some drivers make it 4). the lights were green 50 metres ahead, the filter left lane was on green too, so I was driving at perhaps 30 miles an hour, certainly no more. The light had changed to green it wasn't about to go red so I kept going. I knew it was a long light. There was no side road to my right to watch out for either. Usually a hazard.

Suddenly, out of nowhere a middle aged woman came running across from my left straight in front of my car (we drive on the right remember) This is a very wide road, so how she had crossed 4 lanes of cars by the time she got to me AND was still going, still alive & still running I don't know. Normally Albanians stop, & weave in & out. It makes them easier to avoid. This woman just kept running. I didn't have time to think, I certainly hadn't seen her & I was going too fast to avoid her.

I slammed on the brakes & swerved to her left skidding as I went, with no time to check if there was a car to my left (fortunately they were all turning left & anyway there was no one. I automatically swerved out of the way, missing her by inches.)

She hadn't even been looking, as few pedestrians do, she was just dashing across a green light on a very fast busy road at the last minute. If I had hit her I am sure I would have killed her, or if not, given her a fractured pelvis, 2 broken legs, ruptured spleen & possily a broken arm too. We drive a very old 4x4. It is heavy & built like a tank. We bought it a.) because it was cheap & b.) because we felt we had the best chance of surviving an accident better in something like that. An important consideration in this country of the abandoned highway code.

She wd either have been tossed in the air or gone under the front of our car. I was in a complete state for the rest of the journey, my heart pounding and needed another, even stronger coffee to calm me down. (This is why most families use a driver for the school run. We do too, but 2 days a wk I teach so take them myself. So far every journey has been eventful.)

All I want is to have time for a leisurely "So what special have you got today?" or "Hope your speech goes well." I could happily do without masked machine gun toting convoys, mad menopausal women with a death wish & crazy traffic of a Tuesday morning. Is that so much to ask?

I have never come that close before, there was absolutely nothing I could do, yet if I had killed her I would have had to live with that for the rest of my life. I couldn't stop thinking about that. My husband, ever philospohical & coldly rational, said, "Not at all. She would have committed suicide. Anyone crossing a road like that must have a death wish".

What worried me was the fact that if that had happened, you would be put in prison for your own protection, (from the grieving family) & then you would have to pay the woman's family as 'compensation' for her death. And hope that was sufficient for them. There is still this archaic system in place where as a means of financial vigilante justice you give a money offering as compensation. This would typically be 1000s of dollars. It doesn't only relate to how bad the injuries were or whether there was a death, it is rarely realistic in terms of what the person might be able to afford. Conversely, if you are deemed rich, then the amount goes up exponentially. Thus, as a foreigner you would pay tens of thousands potentially, certainly a lot more. So actually this shows it's not about compensation or justice, it's about how much you can get out of someone. It also shows a complete lack of faith in the justice & legal system here (justifiably so, especially as a poor person who can't bribe to get the 'right' verdict)

You can't get personal liability insurance in Albania. I was driving my own vehicle on a private journey so my husband's NGO wdn't cover it. This very scenario happened to one of my husband's work drivers. I wrote about it here.

This is what doubly freaked me out that I could hit (& possibly kill) someone through no fault of my own, but be liable for 1000s of dollars or even go to prison. With only a 5 yr old & a 9 yr old in the car as witnesses, & therefore being reliant on Albanian witnesses in the street, who could easily be bought off, it's a concerning scenario. Everyone has their price here.

Sometimes I fear Albania will finish me off......

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Answers on a Postcard Please.

Had a bit of a rude awakening this morning as I was minding my own business driving the children to school on the way to my school. I teach on Tuesdays & Thursdays.

You always have to be fairly conscious & alert on the early morning school run as the journey involves negotiating Skenderbeg Square, a HUGE square (think communist scale military parade dimensions) Round this square career cars, vehicles, motorcycles & pedestrians. I can't think o f a better word than 'career', it's fast, furious, chaotic & random. The cars are, at a times, 6 or 7 deep. Added to this the square is cobbled with no lanes marked (Ha! as if that would make any differerence.) Everyone is charting their own course, ploughing their furrow, but at break neck speed. It's what is called a 'free for all'.

So here we are 'careering round', bouncing over the cobbles, bumping in & out of pot holes, teeth rattling, jostling for position, stealing a gap, beeping our horns, wishing the suspension was better. You certainly don't need coffee when you arrive, Skanderbeg square is enough. You're awake by the time you have got round it.

But actually that is normal on the school run. What was something more of a shock was the sound of a siren behind me on the, now narrow, one way street near the school; cars parked on both sides, tightly packed, higgeldy piggeldy like socks in a drawer, bicyles, carts & street sellers coming the wrong way up the street, squeezing through the gaps. So, nowhere to go. The line of cars kept going until the road widened, despite the frantic sirens wailing, whereupon a convoy of four large 4x4 navy police jeeps, 2 motorcycle outriders, one black 4x4 with men in suits in, & a navy heavily armoured vehicle with no windows. I have no idea whether they were transporting gold, prisoners, or the president's pyjamas, but it looked serious (& they were certainly taking themselves very seriously.)

However, the thing that completely took me by surprise was that each of these 4x4s was full of policemen hanging out of the windows, with machine guns trained on me, (again. I've had this experience often in Sri Lanka, but there was a war on there), and all the other cars that had stopped, and the policmen were all wearing black balaclavas with the eyes & mouth holes. I felt like I slipped through a crack & entered Hollywood. My husband would have loved it. Jason Bourne meets an Albanian school run.

What I couldn't work out was why the country's police force wear balaclavas?? Why mustn't they be identified, what was so secret that the security forces have to disguise themselves? Or was it intimidation tactics?? And what about the men in suits? There aren't terrorists in Albania, we are not at war here. It was an extremly bizarre sight. Maybe they just like Jason Bourne films... Any ideas anyone?

So this morning I did need a strong coffee, men in balaclavs pointing machine guns at you, not a good way to start one's day.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Final Frontier?

I don't know if anyone else feels this when you have visitors from home coming to see you 'in situ' abroad, but we always feel pathetically grateful that anyone is actually coming to see 'our life' here & willing to make the effort. Especially when one lives somewhere that is not in the 'Top Ten Tourist Hot Spots'. Most of our friends have families so a visit is not really feasible, so our 3 visitors here apart from my In-Laws, have been a single & a couple.

We also always feel very anxious that our visitors have a good time, whilst knowing the spanners our adoptive country is likely to throw in the works on that front. You just hope that the 'interesting' factor outweighs the 'hassle & hardship' quotient.

It's funny though how the country you often moan about, find frustrating, infuriating, & exhausting, you suddenly feel quite protective of, & want your friends, at least on some level, to like. After all it is your home for now. You also feel a little proud, in some ways, that you can now operate (more or less) in this new alien land, have picked up the gauntlet of driving in the mad traffic, speak a smattering of the language, know some locals & just get on with life here. It's taken a while, so I think the pride is justified.

It also makes you realise the things you have got used to that seem normal now, the fierce strength of the coffee, the ubiquitous cigarette smoke, the cars shooting out of side roads without looking, pedestrians leaping the central barrier of the dual carriageway & darting across your path with seconds to spare, the Roma weaving between stationary traffic to beg, with babies in arms, the constant barking of dogs at night, the dust & pollution.

Some things though, like the selfishness of drivers, the rubbish everywhere, the constant noise of construction, & the power cuts, are all too familiar, but they still irritate.

So it was, that I bought flowers for the house to try & brighten up our 'MDF' apartment. It's airy & bright & we love it now for its location, but when we look at it through Western eyes, we realise it's pretty shabby & basic.

I tried to make really nice meals & did lots of baking to alleviate the fact that e.g breakfast cereals & choice of bread would be very limited & not very healthy, as would variety of foods compared to 'home'. We are used to this now, but our visitors wouldn't be. My husband cracked open South African wine he had been saving up for 'an occasion', as we knew local wine would not pass muster (with us or anyone). I am sure this mattered more to us than our guests, but you still want to make as much effort as possible to make them comfortable. And it's such a novelty having visitors from home. Perhaps I'm being too 'Western' & should remember that the world over, elsewhere, people know that hospitality is all about sharing what you have & making people welcome.

When our friends arrived at the airport, our children were tumbling over each other in their eagerness to point out local bits of their lives to our guests; the zoo, the local pool, the place they bike, roller blade etc. They point out the dam, the small funfair, the local shop, the park, the new street puppies. I realise, of course, that when they go back to England none of their aunts, uncles, my parents, or their cousins know what their home is like, nor do any of their friends. Only my In-Laws have been, so the children never have the opportunity to show friends or family around their home. That must be quite strange so no wonder they seemed proud of their home & eager to share it at last with familiar friends.

Despite all our preparations, we were somewhat frustrated to feel in the end, we had given our friends more of a Frontier Holiday than a sophisticated city break. Not that they were expecting that, but still lots of things happened we would have preferred not to. These friends have faithfully visited us in both our postings & on both occasions have been guinea pigs for trips we hadn't previously done, & on which we had accidents, car breakdowns, detours, long hours in the car, & extreme weather & very poor roads. Suffice to say, they had PLENTY to write about in their diaries each night...

To start with the weather, "the best thing about Albania", as we were told so often when we arrived, had been wall to wall blue skies, no rain & 30' since we returned in August. The day after our friends arrived, the temperature dropped 10 degrees & clouded over & it poured with rain. So much so that we had to light our wood burner (for the 1st time in 5 months) to dry out the clothes after a walk in the park.

We had decided to do a road trip into the northern mountainous area of Albania, complete with a ferry trip up a very long narrow lake. "One of the world's greatstest boat trips" our Bradt guide said. 1st stop for the night though, was former communist dictator, Enver Hoxha's, hunting lodge, bulilt by Mussolinis' son-in-law. It was certainly atmospheric, completely derelict & looted except for 4 rooms & a restaurant which had been done up. You could just imagine the communist elite plotting their enemies' downfall there. However it was dank, gloomy & very cold.

We woke very early the next morning to drive to the ferry, only to discover we had a puncture (made by a huge nail.). By the time we had fixed it we had missed the ONE ferry a day , so we had to drive over the mounatins, which took 7 hrs, with stops, & via a town called
Puke, much to my son's delight. That at least kept us going with jokes for a while. "Are we going to Puke now?"/"So this is what Puke's like"/ "I don't want to eat my lunch in Puke" etc. One of my husband's colleagues is even getting married in Puke. 9 yr old is planning on sending a photo to the Beano, of himself beneath the sign.

The accommodation was very basic as we expected, but also, because it's really only foreign tourists who go there, (& very few of them even), it's quite expensive. Hopefully the scenery & seeing a very ancient subsistence way of life made up for it. These were 2 of the places we stayed. The right hand one was in the mountains, the left hand one in a mountain town, we weren't even sure it was a hotel, it looked so run down & there was no sign.

Valbona is part of a national park. The problem with National parks here is that there are no wardens, no parks offices, no way-marked paths; actually no paths really, no mobile phone signals, no maps, so it's very difficult to actually access anything in them.

The journey back was as cramped as before, 6 of us in a 5 seater 4x4, & the road was being made, so was mostly bumpy dirt track. In one place there were JCBs swinging around on the road, dumping rocks into the river, clearing boulders etc. A man with a whistle was directing them, though he seemed oblivious to the fact that they couldn't possibly hear him. He whistled authoritatively, then waved us on. My husband decided to wait to make sure the JCB had heard. He hadn't & swung around, & would have knocked our car sideways if we had gone. We waited till we made eye contact with him then inched nervously past. There were three all independently doing their own thing, digger arms swinging alarmingly, (certainly independently of Whistle Man)

Further on we met a guy in a mini bus who waved us down. We weren't sure why until about a minute later when there was a loud explosion which ricocheted round the gorge walls followed by billows of smoke. This was followed by about 7 more explosions. They were dynamiting the road ahead. Again no barriers, no signs, no warnings, just a guy ahead, who seemed vaguely connected with the Dynamite Team. But then he wandered off. Still, the minibus driver seemed to know something about it, & when it had finished. Or maybe he was just waiting for a long pause. Again, slightly apprehensively, we drove forward.

The ferry trip was very good. It was an ancient car ferry which ploughs down the river once a day crammed with cars & lorries. The passenger ferry, an old coach welded to a barge, stops off at various places along the lake to drop off bags of grain to remote & isolated communities living in the mountains.
This is me reversing our car onto the ferry, & 2ndly a view of the vehicles on the car deck. They leave the ramp down on the journey, the last car, a 4x4 on the right, only got on with its back wheels still up on the ramp.

Having got up at 5.30a.m to catch this ferry, we were rather peckish, but not altogether surprised, to find the 'cafe-bar' on board sold raki (local alcoholic brew), cigarettes & crisps. This seemed to keep the majority male passengers very happy, but didn't appeal much to a 5 yr old, 9 yr old & 4 Brits. It was then I discovered (by hovering around) that the small, wide & formidable woman serving at the kiosk also had bread under the counter. She was selling it in thick slices, & seemed most put out at my request for a whole loaf, but she grudgingly permitted me to buy a half. This disappeared all too quickly with a jar of jam we had rolling around in our boot, so I wimpishly sent my husband up to get the second half from Madame Formidable. In the space of 3 minutes, however, it had gone up in price by 100%. Communism really is dead in Albania, long live capitalism......... My husband, evidently because of some obscure principle, which didn't taking into account ravenous children, refused to pay the inflated price, so half a loaf between 6 of us it was.

We made it back to Tirana & rounded off the holiday with a power cut all the following day, meaning no one could shower. We waved our friends off to Italy, who I am sure,were secretly relieved to be having 3 days R&R in Rome to catch up on sleep, showers, good Italian food, & a decent bed for the night, safe in the knowledge that, as we will be here for at least another 2 or 3 years, they won't have to do another Final Frontier Holiday for a while to another obscure corner of the world we have lighted upon.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My Prospective Son-In-Law, Aged 5 1/2 (Small Talk Update)

I'm sorry if this offends those amongst you who hold "Guess How Much I love You?" as a sacred text, and, call me a stiff upper-lipped Brit, but I find it all a bit precious &...well, icky. Not the sentiments themselves, but it's just a bit OTT. However, my children loved the book. And love making up their own versions, which I admit is very sweet. And I guess that's the idea.

ANYWAY that aside, I'm glad that my 5 1/2 yr old 'prospective son-in-law' has a good sense of humour, a key ingredient in a strong relationship.

He said to my daughter yesterday,

“Guess how much I love you?

& then he said,

"THIS much” and held his thumb & forefinger together with a barely space between.

On getting the laugh he had hoped for from my ‘secure in his affections’ daughter, who obviously knew it MUST be a joke, said,

“Not really. This much” & flung his arms wide.

They have evidently both been reporting back to respective parents how much the other loves them. It’s all very matter of fact & I am glad they get on so well & she has a boy as a best friend to take the edge off the incipient girliness that's always threatening to take over her penchant for tree climbing & Star Wars games. I like the fact she's a mixture. I think it's healthy. As for the kissing though??......

Yesterday when I picked them up from school my daughter announced, unprompted, about her school day.

“I kissed T today mummy, during rest time.”

Then added; “Jon & Jamie did too.” So clearly T is not that discriminating........

"Where did you kiss him?"

"In the classroom."

"No I mean where?"

"Oh, on his head, & so did Jon but Jamie kissed him on his tummy."

"Where the teacher was in all this florid display of affection I have no idea."

My son’s response was “Wow, I WISH I’d been in kindergarten here, they always have such fun!”

I have to say though I still stand by my impression of T as a gallant, young man though, as mentioned in my last post.

The above conversation was whilst I was walking 5 children through the park to the tennis courts there for a lesson. When we arrived, my daughter needed to change her t shirt. She asked me where she was going to get changed. I said, "Just change it here, it doesn’t matter", whereupon she said

“T don’t look!”

T, ever the chivalrous young gentleman said, in amanner which Bertie Wooster would have been proud of,

“I’m blind, I can see nothing” whilst rather histrionically shielding his eyes with his hand. So that's another tick in the right box. (the chilvalry , not the Bertie Wooster impression) Not that I was expecting to be ticking any boxes quite this soon........

And she obviously believes she’s an authority on kissing now. When I went to tuck her in last night she advised me,

“Mummy whatever you do, DON’T kiss Daddy tonight, he is feeling ill & is spreading germs.”

My son, however, is far too busy making money to be genuinely jealous of the fun & frolics of a day in kindergarten.

He has been saving hard to pay me back £7.99 for a game he bought on ebay. It is arriving tomorrow with friends who are visiting, from England.

He has been feverishly polishing my husband’s shoes, cleaning the car, running errands, anything to supplement his pocket money, & consequently 'unjobbing' Albanians trying to make an honest living cleaning cars (Lavazh) & shining shoes.

However, I discovered from one of his friends yesterday that he sold some of his packed lunch in order to make the last 40 lek he needed (25p) He sold one of my chocolate brownies, his favourite. (Have to say I’m a bit peeved he sold it so cheaply, they’re worth a lot more than that I reckon) AND his packet of crisps, which was indeed a sacrifice as he only gets them once a week. (Yes I know stereotypical middle-class angst ridden mother) Wasn't sure whether to applaud or scold him for this. So I ignored it.

So what with entrepreneurism & infant affections, my children are certainly keeping me on my toes. It gives an added level of expectation to the mundane question,

"What did you do at school today?"

Monday, September 21, 2009

Small Talk.

I am always intrigued by the snippets of conversation that get passed on to me back home after a day at school.

My daughter is loving being at 'big school' & is thriving on her new found sense of 'grown up ness' despite the fact that her mean mummy won't let her have a mobile phone. She announced to me in the UK in the summer that she had seen a little girl, 'who was MUCH smaller than me, probably not even 5" who had a mobile phone & that she wanted one.

"What a REAL one?"

"Yes mummy, of course a real one." Sigh.

I said "What would you do with it?"
Silly question but I still felt it needed to be asked. Obviously not.

She said "Phone my friends of course"

I said "No you can't, you're only 5."

She said "Great, so I won't get one till I'm 200." Whilst rolling her eyes at me of course.

Where a pint-sized, thumb-sucking 5 yr old gets such teenaged head-tossing attitude I have no idea.

My husband has fits regularly about my mobile phone bill, & the VAST amounts he says it costs (about $40 a mth) This is average in Albania, I know, I did my own mini survey. AND it is our only phone, no landline. So I don't think he's ready for another mobile wielding female in the family. I haven't told him about his daughter's request, don't want him to lose any more hair...

She already spends large amounts of time speaking into her pink plastic Barbie one, so she is well practised already. Can't think where she gets this habit from.
She also arranges playdates, & invites her friends round without consulting me. I keep explaining it's 'For mummies to arrange playdates' but she still does it. Fortunately no stray 5yr olds have turned up on our door step as yet, demanding to be let in for their play dates. But just imagine if she had a phone, I wouldn't put it past her to call the mothers. She regularly called my son's headmaster in Sri Lanka (mainly because he was the first name on my phone, to be fair.)

I must say I thought living abroad in developing countries would spare us the whole brand obsessed/ipod,iphone,DS, X box, Wii 'keeping up with my friends' thing which I hate. Clearly not, their beady eyes are presumably busy all summer in the UK doing lightning assessments & monitoring trends & researching latest gadgets before embarking on negotiations once back here (where, fortunately, we can't buy most of these things anyway, certainly not at 'normal' prices) It never ceases to amaze me what they manage to know about with no TV, no magazines, few peers at school with the latest gadgets (being mainly comprised of NGO workers, missionaries, & locals). Just HOW do they know??

But back to the snippets of conversation. My daughter is not fortunately at that teenage stage of grunting & being monosyllabic when it comes to discussing her day. She holds forth about all sorts. However, I'm often not always that much the wiser after the chat.

At her last pre-school, the reported conversations became increasingly bizarre, in response to "Anything happen at school today?"

"Tim said he ate a cat's brain for tea." & then proceeded to tell me how his mother had managed to remove the brain without harming the cat.

"Ali said she wants to kill my dad" Ali had never met her dad,
So I've been quite relieved that, so far, conversations at her new school seem very staid & normal

"Anna dropped her bear to yellow today" in hushed tones. (Blue is good, yellow is bad, red is very, very bad, bear should stay on blue all day.)

"Kevin keeps saying he is the winner all the time, but he's so silly because he always plays by himself so of course he wins all his games."

" Arun kept pushing & kicking people" (poor kid speaks no English, & is probably immensely frustrated & confused.)

And so on.

Things have taken a romatic turn recently however. Her best friend, T, is a little boy who she has known now for 18mths. They are thick as thieves, are fiercely competitive with each other, & like a little old married couple, she bosses him around, they bicker, are very comfortable with each other & seem to know what the other is thinking.

Last week, my daughter came home announcing that; "T said he wants to kiss me" I must say I wasn't quite ready for this, (to my mind), teenager behaviour.

"Did he say why I enquire? "

"No, I don't know, but maybe he liked the way I'd done my bunchers (bunches) today"
A 5 yr old boy? Unlikely.
(Ok so maybe she doesn't always know what he's thinking....)

On Friday she said he said this to her again. I asked what she said to him.

"I told him he could kiss me if he gave me a big bar of chocolate."

My daughter has always had good negotiating skills....

However he sounds like an honourable little chap & has told his mum (we have, of course, discussed this, on our mobiles, with each other) that he has decided that if he kisses my daughter, he will definitely marry her as well.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Earth Moved

We had an earthquake last night. My husband & children slept right through it. Perhaps I should say a tremor, sounds less dramatic, but it felt quite dramatic at the time. It was 6 on the Richter scale at the epicentre about 60 miles away, & a 5.4 in Tirana. Houses collapsed even.

I have lived in Albania for the last 21 mths of my 43 years. In that time I have experienced 3 tremors. Never before. And probably others whilst I slept. For some reason it's not what I expect in Europe somehow. Yet the Balkan area is very seismically active, & certainly the most active of Europe.

There hasn't been a really bad one for 30 yrs though. Mostly we just get tremors.

I was struggling to get to sleep last night, my husband had passed out as soon as his head hit the pillow. Suddenly 10minutes before midnight, the whole bed started shaking more & more, & furniture was rattling. I woke my comatose husband (or thought I had) & said,
"Can you feel that? The bed's shaking, it's an earthquake."
My husband's reply was, "You're just moving your legs about, it's nothing" (??)
How could he not feel it? It went on for several minutes with several aftershocks.

It was the worst one I've felt, and I have to say it is one of the weirdest sensations I've ever had. Somehow you take it for granted that terra firma is... just that. My brain was finding it very hard to process the fact that the solid ground in which I had trusted for 43 yrs was moving about & clearly not to be trusted at all.

My cousin who worked in Japan for many years said they were very common there. In her (high rise) office the Japanese immediately made for the door - to stand under it. The door frames are evidently the strongest part of a building so that's where you gather.

The last tremor (I felt at least) was in May this year, round about the time a friend came to visit us. He was our 1st non family visitor, the only others have been my In-Laws who faithfully visit us wherever we are.

Anyway this friend is a history & politics teacher who just loves 20th century history. So he was very excited to be visiting a post-communist Albania, which being a historian, he knew more about than most.

The1st disappointment was that the one interesting section of the National musem- 'the communist era', was closed (for refurbishment one hopes...) Still that was par for the course of life in Albania, with unexpected closures, power cuts, shortages etc.

I don't know whether anyone else living abroad feels this, but I find we rather want our visitors to have a taste of what your daily life is like, with all its exigencies, frustrations & anomolies. Just to get a small feel of it really & to highlight the differences.

So it was with something not unlike a smirk of satisfaction that I realised our road wouldn't be tarmacced in time for his visit, so mud and/or dust , potholes & bumps would prevail.

On our return from picking up G from the airport, we had another such occurrence. As the whole of one side of the dual carriageway was closed for repairs, & road signs & forewarning are not strong points of the Albanian road network, a car (possibly accidentally,but not very likely) had duly driven on the Off Ramp & proceeded to drive towards us into the oncoming traffic, going the wrong way up our side of the dual carriageway (Maybe he just didn't want to use the bumpy service rd) He wasn't even driving slowly. Fortunately everyone else was (for once) as there were a lot of cones around to slow us down. It was mad, & quite hair raising.

Of course there were also plenty of mad drivers doing their normal thing, driving the wrong way up a one way street, shooting past me on Red as I sat patiently at the lights, cars doing three point turns in the middle of busy streets, vehicles suddenly pulling out of side roads into your path & parking on the pavement, half on, half off etc.

Then there was the 'power cut hassle'. I said I would be popping out to the local supermarket for 10 minutes max to get some bread & salad for lunch. I was gone 45 minutes, because the power went off, then the back up generator wasn't working, so we stood in the shop in the dark, as we do, waiting for it to come on again. I then asked to pay but the tills, of course, weren't working so they told me to go & have a coffee & wait. Eventually I persuaded them to add up my few items on a calculator & tell me what I owed them.

We also took this friend hiking in the mountains. Took 6 hrs to get there even though it's only about 150km away. Dirt roads & mountain passes. We stayed in a farmhouse with local peasant farmers, and we decided to do a recommended walk, with the help of a local. So we all got togged up in walking boots, with camelbak hydration packs on, only to feel rather foolish when our guide turned out to be the granny of the house who proceeded to do the whole walk, in her slippers, including negotiating fallen tree trunks over streams etc. You can imagine who felt the sartorial fool in this situation.....

But the piece de resistance was back in Tirana as we were sitting on our balcony having coffee, Albania kindly threw in a full blown earth tremor. My friend looked up, then looked at the handles of his chair, then around, looking slightly disconcerted. A first for him. Well done Shqiperia.

As nonchalantly as I could muster I said, "Don't worry, just an earth tremor. We get them here you know."

Suffice to say, our friend seems to feel he had a fantastic time here & is coming back for more in the Autumn.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Brave New World.

Our daughter started school this week. Big school. It’s the end of my pre-schoolers era. I feel a bit wobbly. I need someone to hold my hand & say “There there.”

I’m glad, actually, it was my 1st week at school too. I am teaching in the high school part of my son’s school. So at least I won’t be home alone, looking at the ticking clock, thinking ‘only 5 more hours till they come home’, and wondering how to fill the intervening silent space. This year I have ‘things to do’, new challenges. Quite a novel sensation since living abroad.

My daughter was very excited. She wasn’t worried about anything, except whether her teacher would speak Albanian or English. This would be a concern. However, she seemed merely worried about the onset of fatigue rather than the fact that she wouldn’t understand anything that was going on.

“That’s good”, she said, when I reassured her it would be English, “Because I would get very tired speaking Albanian all day”. (As if she is a closet polyglot, who speaks the lingo, rather than a 5 yr old who says MiruPushroom instead of Mirupafshim to anyone she is bidding farewell to, & that’s the limit of it).

She knows the school & many of the teachers; this is a small community. She was a bit shy with her teacher, worrying about remembering her Albanian name, difficult for an English speaker to pronounce (lots of consonants) never mind a 5 yr old. However, as soon as she had hung her bag on her peg, she pleaded to be allowed to go to the playground to hang upside down on the bars (which is how she spends most of her time in any playground) and she was off.

I had to call after her to get her to say goodbye & give me a hug. That didn’t help my wobbles either. It would have helped if she had hesitated just a little bit, had a moment’s reluctance or wobbled a bit herself. But that would have been for me. For her I'm glad.

All those annoying truisms suddenly smack you in the face: “They grow up so fast”, “They’re only little for such a short time”, “Before you know it they’ll be starting school”, “Don’t wish it away, enjoy it while it lasts.”

Why do we never believe them or think this will be true of us? We say, “Not me, I’m going to relish these moments, enjoy every minute, realise it’s a passing season”.

But somehow in the midst of it all we don’t always, because of course it is, at times, mind numbing, exasperating, time-consuming, head-space-reducing, & exhausting, as well as wonderful.

I am glad of the freedom too, especially as, living abroad I have no support network, no one to baby-sit, to have the children, have play dates with for months until you get to know people. I didn’t find nurseries quickly here or in Sri Lanka, but it still feels odd.

Not sure I am ready for this next ‘stage’, though clearly my daughter is. I am glad really, in fact I’m very proud of her, as she has been very clingy, shy & unwilling to stay happily in groups or nurseries etc when younger & has been seemingly quite insecure. I worry, of course, that it is our lifestyle that has made her thus, but it could equally be her experience of hospitals, her ill health when younger. She often panics with screams & tears if she loses sight of me or loses me even momentarily in a shop, even though she has never been lost, I have never left her without her knowing I was going. What have I done to her I wonder? But then back in the UK, people observe how well-adjusted and secure our children seem…. Ho hum.

I feel guilty, too, that there hasn’t been more for her to do in her toddler years. Our son started in school immediately in Sri Lanka & here in Albania. But my daughter was with me constantly for 2 of her 1st 2 ½ yrs of life. But I put her in nursery in Sri Lanka, aged 2 ½, five (short) mornings a week, quite simply because I just didn’t know what to do with her.

There were few parks in Sri Lanka, & these had metal equipment. Molten, egg-frying, finger blistering hot to the touch, & to little bare legs. No shade. There were no music classes, gym classes; toddler groups (except ones which met when my older son was out of school & he certainly didn't want to 'hang out' with a bunch of 2 yr olds singing "The Wheels on the Bus”) Nothing. All we could do was go swimming. And you can’t do that all day every day. I know, I tried.

And I didn’t know anyone, & I knew she was ill & we would be returning to England for her heart surgery within 8 weeks, so she would just get into a nursery, only to be removed from it again. I didn’t want to do that to her.

So we painted, did puzzles, some craft; but I found it hard to find ways of entertaining her completely, on her own, for 7 hrs a day, till her brother returned. She was also not into reading or craft the way her brother always was, which made it harder. So, feeling a bit of a failure, & guilty that I needed respite from a single, solitary, if very demanding, 2 yr old, I signed her up for some social interaction, singing, storytelling & acting in what turned out to be a wonderful Sri Lankan/International nursery, complete with Tomy plastic play equipment in a shaded cool garden. She loved it. Eventually. Even that took a while.

In Albania, for a year she went to a pre-school till 12 & loved it. We tried an Albanian nursery where she mostly watched Albanian TV, (so maybe she DOES know more Albanian than she is letting on??) So I have been eased gradually into her starting school, and of course I have had an extra year, as they don’t start school till 5 here, so that’s been great. But this feels different, this redefines me, our family, & what stage we are at.

I am so pleased she is so excited. I love that fresh, eager glee that children seem to have when they start school, delighting in their own peg, hoping they will get homework, relishing the uniforms, the routines, the packed lunches, the big newness of it all.

But I will miss, paradoxically, those lazy, listless summer afternoons when I don’t know what to do, when it’s too hot to ride bikes or go to the park, & my daughter, emphasising my failure to entertain her, badgers me “Can I watch a film?” (Always a film as there’s no T.V alternative).

Or on a winter’s afternoon when I have stoked the smoky wood burner & it’s too wet, cold & muddy to go outside, & my daughter says, “Can I watch a film?”

Or when it’s rained constantly for 2 days & the road outside our gate is such a lake that it’s even over our boots, & my daughter says, “Can I watch a film?”

It did finally dawn on me that her penchant for films has nothing to do with meteorological conditions. She would happily watch one whatever the weather.

I will also miss those days returning from nursery through the park when a little hand slips into mine & my daughter says “Shall we skip mummy?” or “Shall we climb trees?” (Her favourite) When we are not in a hurry at all, and we can pick flowers, collect pine cones & explore new paths.

I will miss having a little one around to help me bake cakes, hang out the washing, someone who needs me & would rather do things with me, her dad or her brother, than anyone else. But of course that says more about me than her.

And everyone always tells you that growing children find it much easier to slip their little hand out of yours, than we do to let go our grip of theirs.

It’s just that nothing prepares you for it.

Still, on the plus side, maybe now I’ll get the puppy dog greeting normally reserved for my husband when they haven’t seen him all day & he returns from work.