Monday, March 30, 2009

It All comes Out in The Wash

One of the most typical sights here in Albania is the ‘Lavazh’ - the car wash. They are everywhere, more ubiquitous than the child cigarette sellers flogging the beat of the city streets.

These car washes though, are human. They consist of 2 –3 lads (usually) with extremely high-pressure hoses. They wash the outside of the car, they wash the underbelly, they open the bonnet & sluice out the engine (is this good for it I wonder??) Not a wheel hub is left unwashed in their quest for a pristine machine.

Then they clean inside the car, they swab down the car mats, nothing is too much trouble. This ritual will set you back the equivalent of $4.

Almost always the car radio is on maximum volume & the lads dance & gyrate as they manoeuvre mud from metalwork with a flick of the power hose.

Yet I rarely get ours done. Is this because I’m British (&, according to the French at least, we’re a slovenly race who soak in our own dirt in the bath)? Is it because I’m not car proud, or can’t be bothered? All of the above probably. It just doesn’t seem important.

But here they are places of worship almost. People queue up patiently for a lavazh despite there being another, a few 100 metres down the road. People worship at this 'shrine to cleanliness' with astonishing commitment & regularity. They even get their clean cars lavazhed. Well, clean by my standards of course….

Another thing you see all the time is shop & café owners wash and mop the road outside their shop, it’s a morning ritual, to sluice it down, preceeding the turning of the 'Hapur' (open) sign. Always a drought-inducing quantity of water is involved. I have discovered this, at least, is a communist legacy. Everyone was responsible for the cleanliness of the area immediately outside his or her shop/café/home. It seems like this has stuck, though it is also a fairly common sight all over southern Europe. It’s a shame the communists' injunction to do ‘litter picking’ didn’t last into democracy however.

They say, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” though I must admit I’ve never really understood that aphorism. Maybe people do it to try & rise above the dust and pollution of a city under rapid and relentless construction. Maybe it’s a surface purification to hide the muck and corruption that lies beneath the surface of this society.

It verges on the obsessive.

I see a man walking along in "Whiter than Persil White" Winklepickers, (oddly defiant choice for a city as dirty as this) stopping by a puddle to clean off his shoes. I see this often, men cleaning their shoes in any surface water available. It strikes me as particularly European. Can you imagine a British man doing this?? I think not.

When I lived in Paris for example, bored shop assistants would openly & minutely observe their image in a mirror, totally unabashed. Correcting, touching up, sometimes just admiring. I think the difference is the Brits never do any of this stuff in public; it’s just not….seemly.

Apartments are cleaned obsessively too. That’s another hygiene thing we Brits are supposed to be bad at - housework. I cannot get my head round the fact that people here are so obsessive about keeping their homes spotless. I mean you couldn’t just eat off their floors; you could perform open heart surgery on them. And people clean everything every day.

Sometimes I move the mops & brooms around in our house a bit to hide the fact from our cleaner that actually I don’t clean in between her visits. I mean, our apartment gets 6 hrs cleaning a week. How dirty can it get in 2 days? But I am embarrassed by my slack standards compared to her. I’m letting the British side down, or reinforcing a stereotype or something….

And yet outside there is rubbish everywhere. People sling it out of the car window as they drive along, they drop it on the pavement as they walk, they sit on the beach & then just get up & walk away from their post-picnic detritus. I don’t get it. And I write this confident that you who read it would think the same, so how come a whole nation behaves like this??

The drain in our road is blocked. It’s been like that for a year. Recently it has got a lot worse. Every time it rains, the whole road floods. It reeks of sewage. It takes two whole dry days to seep away. Now that IS a hygiene issue. But what do people do? They just put stepping-stones along the side in order to traverse it with dry feet.

Maybe it’s because they know nothing will be done, maybe they are resigned to the squalor of the outside environment, but your home & your car, at least you can control those I suppose.

And indeed you can step out in White Winklepickers and defy the dirt.

Meanwhile I will have a long soak in the bath (but only once a week of course….) I will drive a filthy car (confident in the knowledge that it is not hazardous to my health) & continue to shuffle mops in a self conscious domestic musical chairs. I will also invest in a pair of wellies as the drain won't be sorted out anytime soon.

But as for the litter, well ,it’s hard to know where to start….

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Chill out if you can.

I wish I was more chilled out. Sometimes I think I have the wrong personality for living in a developing country. So much makes me anxious, for my children in particular. There is definitely more to worry about in a developing country. More health hazards, traffic hazards, pollution, diseases, banned pesticides being used on crops, I could go on….

I guess it’s also about being a control freak, but not being in control. Being in an unfamiliar environment, in an unknown culture where often one feels powerless, has few available choices or is unable to minimise risks as easily, is unsettling for a worrier like me.

But then it has also made me realise how lucky I am and how much choice I do have compared to so many in the world, who are in situations beyond their control , who are utterly powerless, or without the money or education or fortune of birth to make choices or exert any control over their circumstances.

In Sri Lanka I used to obsess over mosquitoes potentially carrying Dengue, about all the tropical diseases, my children having an overloaded immune system from all the vaccinations they’ve had to have, the dangerous traffic, snakes, mostly tropical stuff. Strangely I didn’t worry about terrorist attacks. I felt safer in Colombo than I did in London. Maybe because there were so many military checkpoints and soldiers everywhere. Maybe because I knew foreigners & civilian institutions weren’t a target.

Here in Albania I worry about the high voltage power lines that pass right over our villa & what effect they’re having on our health.

I worry about the children getting appendicitis, or some other emergency that necessitates a hospital ,and having to be flown out. (The British embassy have Tirana as an unaccompanied post because of the lack of adequate health care)

An Albanian acquaintance this week got appendicitis. She is 6 mths pregnant, she’d had pains for weeks but no one diagnosed it correctly. She was evidently minutes away from peritonitis. The Dr told her that operating on her to remove an appendix & whilst pregnant was akin to trying to ‘walk on water’ Luckily he ’managed to perform said aquatic miracle, though I thought you cdn’t have a general anaesthetic when pregnant…?? But then she was back in hospital because they had overdosed her on drugs because the beds have no charts, there is no handing over between nursing staff so she was given her 2 lots of medicine twice. Thankfully she is ok, though no one knows how the baby is except it’s still alive.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be Albanian & to have to live with this; maybe you are poor & can’t afford the bribes for good healthcare or maybe you’re better off, but you still have no choice but to go to these dreadful hospitals.

Her husband was told his wife & child would probably die. Having his employer’s car (he’s a chauffeur) stolen from the guarded hospital car park the night he was told that, turned into small fry in comparison. He lost the car & his job, but his wife & child survived.

Just another day in Post-Hoxha Paradise….

I still worry about the traffic. It’s faster here so more dangerous, and they’re not Buddhists so they ‘re not as worried about killing pedestrians . At least you assume that from the way they drive. Though given what I now know, they should be.

Every Sunday we bike into Tirana. My son has just got his ‘next size up’ bike with gears, so he bikes with us. On the roads. Admittedly we go along a traffic free road initially and through the park before we get to a stretch of road that only takes about 6 minutes, but at times like this I wish I was a fly or an owl. Multifaceted eyes or a swivelling head would be very useful to keep an eye on all the potential hazards.

It’s true the road we bike along has no side roads, which are the worst hazard for cars shooting out into your path. Fortunately my son is very cautious & obeys instructions exactly. I stick with him in a mother hen/leach like combo, glaring at any & every driver who dares come too close. I also have an extremely loud klaxon, repetitive horn which I make liberal use of.

We cross one traffic light. Here we have had to add to the green cross code:

“Just because the light is green, do NOT assume the other cars will stop.”

When traffic lights were first introduced in Albania in the mid nineties, no one took ANY notice of them. Significant numbers still don’t. Or at least they will cross a red light a good 15 seconds after it has changed to red.

I heard two stories last week of a Dutch man & an Albanian woman both of whom stupidly trusted the green man (Oh yes we have green men). They both got knocked down, one lost a leg, both nearly died, hospitals being another occupational hazard here. Needless to say neither driver stopped.

I’ll tell you why. I am more paranoid about driving here than ever now. At Christmas a driver from my husband’s organisation knocked down a 65 yr old pedestrian. He is an excellent driver, he had another foreigner in the car who said there was nothing he could have done. The pedestrian (as is their wont here) just stepped out from between two parked cars smack into the NGO 4x4. The driver couldn’t avoid him. The man died cradled in the driver’s arms. Almost immediately an angry mob formed. I can believe this, it happened to me once in Sri Lanka too. People seem to want any excuse for an outlet for their anger.

The police arrested Genti and immediately put him in prison. This was 3 weeks before Christmas. So his wife & 2 children were alone for Christmas. He stayed in prison for 2 months. He is now under house arrest awaiting his trial.

The police evidently do this for your own protection. You see, families of deceased loved ones often exact revenge. Blood for blood, an eye for an eye. These are not Northern Kanun families, these are people living in Tirana the capital city of a European country in 2009. I find it hard to get my head d round this.

According to the Kanun code observed in the north, if someone in your family is killed, accidentally, deliberately, manslaughter, no matter, then ANY male member , however distant, of the responsible family can (& will be) killed to settle the blood debt. The only place of sanctuary is the home, which means men cannot leave their house.

Hopefully though, amongst non-Kanun , non –Northern families the matter will be settled with money instead of blood. Fortunately Genti was in immediate discussion with the family concerned and a payment has been agreed. This is normal in ALL cases. He will have to pay $4000 to the family. This is most of his annual salary. They will then not press charges, & they will ‘release’ him from any further responsibility though the police are pressing charges.

Unfortunately he remains under house arrest so can’t work, until the case comes to court. The judge won’t bring it to court because he is asking Genti for a bribe of $4000 for himself, NOT to bring it to court. The judge can hold out for 2 yrs, but then it has to come to court or be thrown out, so the judge will wait in the hope of a bribe, knowing Genti can’t work until the case is heard.

Perhaps now you can see why people just drive off when they have hit someone. It also makes me realise the potential fall out of having an accident. As a foreigner you are unlikely to put in prison, at least not for long, but you might not be exempt from a blood debt just because you were foreign, though being a foreigner, the pay settlement & bribes demanded would be huge.

I nearly hit a girl a few months ago. It was pouring with rain. I was in the 3rd lane . The light ahead was green and there was no car in my lane so I just carried on without stopping or slowing down, when a pedestrian from the two lanes of stationary cars waiting to turn left popped out, head down under an umbrella because it was pouring. Fortunately I wasn’t going too fast so braked hard and she stopped and had to put her hands on my bonnet to steady herself. People a.) don’t look, b.) weave constantly between moving cars, c). have absolutely zero awareness of traffic or of the fact that you are in a half ton lump of metal. It’s scary. It would be so very, very easy to hit someone and it absolutely not be your fault.

But maybe I am chilling out. I am getting on with it. You have to. I still bike everywhere. I'm still driving. My children have become incredibly 'road and traffic aware'.

And when we walk anywhere we are particularly cautious about those little green men.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Lavender for Labour

Ophelia had 'Rue for Remembrance' I had lavender for labour. A lovely lavender aromatherapy bath when I was in labour with my 1st born. And as we know the olfactory senses have more power to evoke memories than any of the other senses.

So I am entering a Mother's Day blogging competition. The 1st 20 entries will win a bottle of Mamababybliss 'Ooh' Lavender bath soak. They sell products for pregnant women, new mums, and also babies. I haven't done anything like this before, but hey ho it's a Monday morning, my daughter is sick in bed, and the brief is to think of a time when you pampered yourself and to write about it. So I am enjoying reminiscing.

I was prompted to think about this because yesterday was Women's Day here in Albania (yes I live in Albania now) and it's a really big deal here. And believe me the women in Albania need pampering, they do ALL the work & more. Really. I spent it looking after 5 children & feeding 5 hungery men after their training ride for a charity bike ride they're doing. So all in all I could relate to the idea of needing a little pampering....

Here it is:

Birthday, beer cake & balloons.

(This was my attempt at having a pampering day on my birthday. About the best I could do whilst living in Sri Lanka. )

“It was my birthday yesterday. I had to supervise my own card making by the children, such is a mother's lot when it comes to birthdays. Supervise, spell, not to mention draw my own picture & write my own good wishes (if my daughter had had her way) whilst at the same time NOT looking at the drawings and feigning surprise on my birthday. My son decided all this needed to be done about 5 minutes before bath time the night before my birthday. I think there was a hidden agenda there.

He asked what number to write on his card to me. When I told him he said "Wow that IS old" Not a good start. I said "It sounds old, but it's not really that old is it?" He thought for a minute, then said "Actually it is really". I said,
"Old means having grey hair and wrinkles".
He said "What are wrinkles?" I explained. He said "Oh yes you have some of those, and your hair makes you look older."
Right then, obviously long and blond (natural) is out, am I really the age where I have to get a sensible middle-aged bob?

I much prefer the exchange I had with a girl from Essex, I think, at someone else's birthday on Sunday. We had the dreaded "So how old are you?" conversation. Everyone admitted they were 32, 33 or 34. Then she asked me. When I reluctantly told her, 41, she said, with disconcerting directness; "Cor blimey, I am so shocked. You've got no wrinkles' (I have, it was a candlelit meal. And besides, my son tells me I have)
Then she said, "So what cream do you use?" which I considered a real coup. No one has ever asked me that before. But then she made me feel ancient again by looking at me as if I was a still living survivor of the Titanic and said to me,
"Wow, so you were born in the sixties!!"

I could have said, yes but I don't remember them, but then isn't that what everyone from the sixties says??

I went to my mums' group on the morning of my birthday, which I go to every Thursday, a highlight of my week, and got kissed exactly 15 times. This is because there were five Dutch there. The Dutch really know how to kiss. They do it a lot, and always on your birthday. They also always kiss on both cheeks. And then once more on the 1st cheek. It took quite a long time as you can imagine. Being British I rather envied them their cultural confidence.

They seem to know exactly when to kiss, who to kiss, which cheek to start with and how many to give. It must be written in a book somewhere. I, however, never know who, when, where to kiss. Those moments always leave me slightly anxious. Weighing up how well you know someone, how long since you last saw them, whether it will be misconstrued etc.

I wish someone could enlighten me. But then a Dutch friend said to me that in church people she barely knew would come up and greet her with 3 kisses. Always non-Dutch. I think it was because people assumed that because she was Dutch it was the cultural norm to kiss her like that. It's not.

The 2nd possibility is that she has a "come kiss me"air about her. Who knows? So I guess it has its advantages being British and reserved. Unless you like random strangers kissing you.

An English friend arrived bearing red, white and blue balloons. Unfortunately this being Sri Lanka, and an average of 34' all the time, the balloons expanded (already fully blown up) & burst one by one over the course of the morning, nearly sending one of the mums, 33 weeks pregnant, into premature labour.

My friend also brought along a chocolate, beer cake. Not Nigella's, though a familiar concept for us Brits. The Dutch and Americans amongst us seemed strangely disconcerted. It was yummy, even if it wasn't stout, but whatever Sri Lanka had to hand. Usually only lager. I must ask her what she used. We ate half the cake, and my family polished off the other half by 5 o clock that evening.

My husband treated me to a massage at "The Sanctuary" in Colombo for my birthday. Sadly not "The Sanctuary" of Covent Garden fame, but nevertheless, about as good as it gets in Sri Lanka. i.e. proper massage beds, trained staff, lotus flowers floating in granite bowels of water, air con, warm towels, soothing music. Green tea in a coconut bowl to drink afterwards. I was happy! The best service I have had anywhere in Sri Lanka.

The shock, of course, is walking out of this calm, soothing haven back into the dust, pollution, humidity & crazy traffic that is Colombo.

To mix the metaphors further, it was a Swedish massage. This refers to the strength and style of the massage, rather than the nationality of the masseuse. Mine certainly wasn't tall and blond... Shame.

It was blissfully relaxing and not at all painful, unlike Thai massages when I have been walked on, elbowed, had all my joints yanked to 'click' them etc. This one I had to struggle to stay awake. I didn't want to fall asleep and miss it.....

I needed to maximise my pampering experience. I’d probably have to wait at least a year before the next one.”

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Giving Up For Lent?

I decided I would 'give something up for Lent' this year. I don't normally do this, I always think it seems a negative thing to 'give up' something. I would rather 'do something' positive, make an extra effort with something, or give up something (like the computer) in order to give me more time for something more worthwhile. But there lies the rub.

I am actually giving up chocolate. The reason I realise I am giving up chocolate is because I know I can do this relatively easily, whereas the computer, oh dear no, it's my lifeline to the outside world, where I have my blogging catharsis, my ebay fix, my email flutter.

But in my heart of hearts I know I spend too much time here at the computer & worry I'm too dependent on it.

The other thing I should maybe give up is coffee. Before I moved abroad I was never very into coffee, (well going out for one was always nice, but at home I didn't bother) but now I have one every morning, and it's become something of a ritual if I'm at home. And let's face it I often am. I make a proper coffee (of course), though here it's thought that because you're Western you love Nescafe instant because it's 'modern' & 'conveneint' &, well, Western). In fact in cafes here you have to ask for a cappucino 'with coffee' in order that you don't get one of those instant packet cappucino mixes . An Albanian would be given a 'real' cappucino by default, though actually no self respecting Albanian would drink anything other than an espresso or a Turkish coffee anyway...

I digress. My coffee ritual. I brew the coffee (4mins) I heat the milk, I froth it, and I put it in my favourite Emma Bridgewater spotty mug. I'm beginning to worry I sound like the old codger in the staff room who has leather patches on his sleeves & has to always sit in the same chair & drink out of the same mug, or woe betide any one who sabotages that routine.

I've come to the conclusion that I do this because it's a little treat. Sounds pathetic I know but I have found that living in the sort of countries we seem to end up in, where life is frequently frustrating & stressful, where so much is poor quality, plain inadequate or unavailable, it's the little things that begin to count for a lot. And they just cheer you up. I look forward to my coffee.

But then of course I am completley & utterly addicted to tea. I can't do without tea. At certain times of the day it is simply the only drink that cuts the mustard. Nothing else will do.

I'm afraid tea is a completely no go area. It's simply a necessity of life. So forget that.

I'm not doing very well, am I? I guess in a slightly puritannical way I always think that I should be giving up something that I am slightly addicted to, just to show that I'm prepared to make the sacrifice & I control it, it doesn't control me. Reflecting on the past year to try & bolster my feeling somewhat pathetic about my chocolate fast, I remembered that I had involuntarily given up the internet for 8 mths until we got on line here, I gave up sleeping on a pillow, & indeed most creature comforts till our shipment arrived 5 months into our arrival in Albania, I gave up driving for 9 mths because we had no car. I could go on.

And in the other sense of the word, most of the time here I try hard not to 'give up'; to keep going, think positive, look on the bright side & for the good things, (& they are there) and not give in to loneliness, homesickness or inertia or sheer screaming blue fits of frustration at times too.

So I'm sticking to chocolate. I feel it's all I can manage this year.

My daughter, ever the pragmatist, sees it in a slightly different light. Not to be outdone, and always so desperate to be like her older brother, (who has decided to give up his Tamagotchi , rather unfortunate for said Tamagotchi as I think this means it will die. Also probably the reason I said 'what a good idea.'), my 4 y-o announced:

"I know what I'm giving up."

Oh, yes, what's that then?"

"I'm giving up being the ball-person."

"The ball-person? What do you mean?

"I'm giving up being the ball-person, who fetches the ball when we play ping pong."

Ok, And why do you think that's a good thing to give up?"

"Because it makes my arms tired".

Not sure I've quite communicated the spirit of Lent to her, but then again, with me as a role model what hope has she??