Monday, April 27, 2009

Home Thoughts From Abroad

We escaped to England for Easter. The whole family. We had got some cheap flights, husband was in desperate need of a break & we all needed a breather from the country, the culture etc. We also wanted to surprise my father-in-law who had had a hip operation & hadn’t been able to come out & visit at Christmas. It worked brilliantly & wasn’t too much of a shock to the old ticker.

I had been to a talk a month ago about ‘Acculturisation’ which talked about one’s tolerance levels plummeting after 2-3 months, when living in a stressful, alien culture. Particularly a developing or very different country. He said you find yourself experiencing childish emotions & getting absurdly angry about little inconsequential things. This he said was perfectly normal & happens EVERY 2-3 months. He reckoned it lasted for 2 yrs in a new culture. Friends here say it never stops completely. Phew, so I’m normal. It’s not that I can’t cope. Or that I’m peri-menopausal. At least I have an excuse now…

In the midst of gloomy, old, credit-crunch Britain, it was a pleasure to see that spring wasn’t affected by recession. The green shoots, not of economic growth, but of nature’s round, were oddly reassuring to see, and just the tonic we needed.

Woods were awash with bluebells, bobbing in the lime green light, so redolent of spring, also, white wood anenomes, cheery yellow celandines & even a sprinkling of pink campion. Wild cherries were in blossom & the candles on some of the horse chestnuts were in full flower.

Hedgerows were bursting with stitchwort, May & frothy blackthorn. On one walk we came upon a field of cowslips, their presence jauntily contradicting their rarity.
On another visit friends had them in their garden & allowed our daughter to pick bunchfuls of them (which she probably would have done anyway living in Albania, where there are no rules about wild flowers or conservation. One wit observed that the blue plastic bottle is the national flower of Albania…)

But let’s not spoil the picture. The fields obligingly had lambs in them, and on the Isle of Wight we hid in a hide & were rewarded by a red squirrel coming & nibbling nuts on the hide windowsill inches from us. He stayed for 10 minutes & then kept popping back for more.

The birdsong too was startling, so loud. Again in Albania you don’t hear much birdsong. Most of the birds have been shot & those still alive are living dangerously. People shoot them, not sure if this is for sport, food or just ‘for fun’. My husband once biked past an old boy with a rifle, on the dam near where we live. He was aiming at a sparrow. Hubby deliberately jogged his arm to spoil his aim. One sparrow lived to see another day, or maybe another half hour…. there are lots of old boys around with rifles here. My husband took off on his bike very quickly….

I have to admit I agree with Boris Johnson who said that nowhere in the world is as beautiful as England in the spring, though he hardly has original copyright on such sentiments. Two poems, one by Hopkins’ “Spring” “Nothing is so beautiful as spring” & Robert Browning’s Home Thoughts from Abroad “Oh to be in England now that April’s there” have come into their own for me since living abroad. You miss it, you appreciate what for years you have taken for granted & you realise just how lovely it is, even without the rose-tinted specs, it looks pretty special.

For the children England is about grandparents, cousins, & re-establishing routines & rituals, revisiting familiar places; the chance to walk a favourite dog for our son, trips to the beach near my In-Laws’ home, seeing how many stones from the beach one grandfather has polished (lots….), checking the special child’s bunk under the eaves is exactly how they left it, visiting the brook and cheating at pooh sticks.

For us adults it was also a bitter-sweet time. I went to church on Easter Sunday & saw a friend there who has a brain tumour, discovered 2 months ago; “the worst possible sort” the consultant said. She has 2 children, & is so brave, so amazing.

“I’m holding hope in one hand & reality in the other” she observed. In this modern age we are walking through the experience with her as she keeps us up-to-date on Facebook, with her treatment, with humour, candidness & pictures.

She was the first person I saw when I walked in. I went over to give her a hug and say hello. Her legs were up on the chair in front of her. I asked what the matter was. She dissolved into tears explaining that the steroids she was on were now affecting her legs badly. The side effects of pain, sleeplessness & discomfort, as well as the indignity of suffering radiation sunburn & hair loss makes it so hard on a daily basis, never mind the ordeal of having one’s hope for some sort of future lying in shards at one’s feet.

Yet she does have hope. She has a vibrant, real faith, forged in the fire of this ultimate test. And she has a peace & strength, which is beyond earthly understanding.

Then there was a visit to some friends, actually just the husband, who (it turns out) had been left by his wife 6 months ago. We had thought their emails very infrequent & sketchy always hinting at bad times but no detail. Turns out they were still sharing the same email so couldn’t say anything. They are friends we have known for 20 years. Our first uni friends to marry.

They have been through so much; their oldest has been bullied much of his school life (& had it ignored by the school), their 2nd son has had various mystery illnesses which have left him at times in a wheelchair, their 3rd boy has very severe asthma & endless ENT problems, requiring operations, consultations, medication etc. Their 5th child, a little girl was sexually assaulted by a boy in her class, aged 4. The headmistress wouldn’t do anything about it, because she admitted she was afraid of the father.

Their 4th child, a boy, Daniel, died ‘in utero’ at 26 wks. The husband had a nervous breakdown around the same time. He was the Number 2 in the foreign office in a country which suffered a high profile terrorist bombing. The stress & tension of living & working in that situation proved too much, coupled with his child dying.

He contracted ME & has not now worked for about 4 years. He is still trying to get a settlement from the Foreign Office. He was one of those typical candidates for ME, highly driven, 1st class honours, extremely intelligent, very hard working etc. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever work again.

We think his wife just couldn’t cope any more. You can understand her world-weariness & sense of hopelessness that anything would change. She asked him to leave. Somehow she felt life would be better without him. He will be utterly ruined by the divorce. He can’t work, a court will hardly find much in his favour in the way of sharing childcare when he has ME, & he probably won’t be able to afford to live near them either.

This brings the tally to 5 couples we know who have now divorced. Of the previous 4 if I had to name 4 of our friends that would be most likely to divorce it would have been them, but these latest friends…. It was inconceivable, unbelievable, and, it seems, irreconcilable.

At times like this you wish you weren’t so far removed & unable to help.

But unfortunately we had to return to Albania.

The 1st indication of being back comes before you are even off they plane. The mild anarchy, that is Albania’s attitude to rules of any kind, is represented in microcosm as the plane lands & taxies to its stand. As soon as you have touched down, most of the cabin is on its feet removing bags from lockers even as the plane is hurtling across the tarmac & despite repeated requests from air-stewards to sit down. On one occasion the pilot even came on the sound system to tell people to sit down.

As always seems to happen after a holiday of any kind, & always happens to us on re-entry to our adopted country, in the 6 days since being back, we’ve had 2 ½ days of power cuts, 4 days with no internet (our landlord neglected to pay the bill for 6 mths, even though we’ve been paying him for it), the broken sewer outside our gate is only half built (after 2 months) but at least the smell has gone (though I’m not sure where…) Our car has broken down yet again. Our ‘new’ mechanic, we thought we’d finally found a good one, short circuited our indicator & horn in order to fix them. In so doing it has caused the starter motor & lots of fuses to blow. Oh for a reliable, honest garage….

And I spent an hour queuing in the wrong queue for a passport renewal, because that was where I was told to queue, only to discover the security guard, when I got to the front of the queue didn’t know what he was talking about & put me in the wrong queue.

The effect of the ‘Easter English tonic’ wears off all too quickly when coming back into such circumstances. There are times when I really intensely dislike this place. However, I guess it’s spring here too, the park is full of buttercups, a small owl has taken to visiting our roof terrace, & house martins are nesting under our roof. And having seen the sorrows of people dear to us back in England, how can I not be grateful for all I do have?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

My Cinderella Moment.

Sometimes I wonder where I fit in. In the blogging world there are Mummy Blogs, Ex-pat blogs, Travel blogs. Which am I, I wonder? Should I be targeting a certain readership? I am all these, but not one exclusively.

Of course we all have multiple roles & identities: e.g wife/mother/career woman/daughter/sister.

These identities are true & defined. I am all these things, they fit. I like to think I slip seamlessly between roles, but in this new blogging world I slip through the cracks of these different identities & in my new ‘living abroad world’ I sometimes feel like Harry Potter on Platform 9 3/4, slipping through into another world & back again, seemingly effortlessly, yet left wondering where I belong. Trailing spouse/NGO wife/Third Culture Kid Mother.... these roles are more blurred, more slippery & equally angst inducing.

I ‘joined’ the blogging world to write about my experiences, observations & frustrations of being wrenched up from the safe herbaceous border of home, & family, & thrust, raw roots still oozing, into a parched desert, not a friendly flower in sight, trying not to think of the rich pastures of friendships left behind.

And in my overseas world. I am an ex-pat in as much as I live abroad. But that's about as far as it goes; I'm not married to an Albanian so not permanently here, not here longterm like most of the missionary community. I am not part of the Embassy/ex-pat crowd, though I suppose I should be grateful that I could choose to fill my time with Tuesday morning coffee, Wednesday evening dining club, Thursday’s lunch group, Friday Afternoon tea, Monday art gallery visits. There are also daytrips but I can’t do those with a child still not at school full time. Most of these women are older with no children or grown-up children. And what do you talk about when most of your week is filled with little more than sampling different beverages……?

Then I am an NGO wife, but there are only 5 or so NGOs here (more to do with corruption problems than lack of need here I imagine) so there isn’t an NGO crowd as such to ‘run with’.

Often, anyway, this crowd is young, very hard working and full on party-ers. I can understand this now. When dealing with so much hardship, tragedy & poverty it needs an escape valve. But doesn’t really work for a 40-something stay at home mother of two….

Then there is the missionary crowd. These wives/mothers mostly work too so aren’t around during the day; they are mostly (not exclusively) American conservative fundamentalists, who I struggle to relate to, despite my own faith. Then there is the fact that whilst my husband is putting in 12hr days & gets 20 days leave a year, these missionaries have about 12 wks a yr & seem to have incredibly flexible schedules. Hence we do not overlap much.

I am learning Albanian, but once I have asked the shop assistant for 400 grams of mince, asked after your health, explained that, yes my children are at school, & commented on the weather, then I grind to a small talk stop. So much for Albanian friendships.

This weekend was another reminder of the worlds I inhabit. I spent one afternoon at the hand made card project I help with, which provides a job/income for ladies who literally dig for iron to sell to earn money. Mangava is a micro enterprise project to help these women. Then I went to the International Women’s Group meeting in the evening. Everyone dresses up to the nines for this monthly meeting. I always feel a bit slack turning up in my jeans. We watched a film by an Albanian about the many problems in Albania today. I was very glad to find, after Albania’s own ‘cultural revolution’, that art & free expression are thriving (though the latter does not thrive in the media it has to be said).
The chairwoman’s response was “Well, that was quite a heavy film. Thank you” And it certainly was unusual for this group.

Then, on Saturday, in rather abashed, full ex-pat mode, we went to the first ever British Embassy Spring Ball in Tirana, raising money for the Sue Ryder Foundation. We were going with a group of friends, amongst whom were 4 guys who had completed a charity bike ride from North to South Albania. So everyone was in the mood for celebrating. My husband ran their training mountain bike trips in the hills behind our house every Sunday. But of course he didn’t have enough leave to just ‘take off’ across Albania on a bike for 9 days.

So, on Saturday afternoon I went with two friends to get my hair done. I have only ever done this twice before. Once for my wedding, once as a bridesmaid. Felt quite decadent & an indulgence, but for $20 an affordable one. (My friends' 'hairdos' only cost $14. was my lack of Albanian the reason, did I seem 'more of a foreigner than my 2 foreign friends' thus meriting a higher price??)
This is one of the things that is weird about living abroad (in a developing country) You can afford to get your hair done just for going out to a party, you can have ‘help’, even gardeners & drivers if you really want, live-in housekeepers etc. I know a lady her who has her hair & make-up done every day at a salon (No, she doesn’t have children) You can live the sort of life that in Britain only the rich live. But it is doubly uncomfortable because you are living in a country, no doubt, where there is a lot of poverty. And I just don’t want to be living that sort of life.

Anyway it was great fun to peep into this embassy world, amazing to be a voyeur at an auction where ex-pats (& rich Albanians) were paying 400 euro for a bottle of cognac, 1400 euros for a night in a London hotel etc. When you are not bothered about fitting into a particular world, then it is simply fun & amusing. The rub comes when you want to fit in somewhere & there doesn’t seem to be anywhere you fit.

On Sunday, my husband was feeling very rough (more from age, overwork & the roughness of Albanian wine than over indulgence I think), so after lunch he had a sleep. I do not begrudge him this in the slightest. He works very hard, and I'd had my girly afternoon on the Saturday at the hairdresser.

While he slept:
1. I washed up the children ‘s supper from the night before, & the lunch stuff.
2. I made the supper.
3. I wrapped a birthday present for my 8 y-o to take to a party the next day.
4. Found a spare birthday card for him to write.
5. I made an Easter project with 8 yr old involving plaster of Paris. (He won 1st prize!)
6. I supervised my son defrosting the freezer (chipping ice away with v sharp knife)
7. Loaded & unloaded the washing machine twice.
8. Iced fairy cakes with my 2 children.
9. Washed up cooking stuff.
10. Hung the washing out.
11. Tidied the kitchen.
12. Made afternoon tea for everyone.
13. Checked my email (well I am an ex-pat…).

I felt like Cinderella. Ball, posh frock, chic hairdo one day, washing dishes & mopping the floor the next.

My husband woke, looked around at the serene scene & said “oh good, tea!” He didn’t seem to notice the fairy Godmother had visited in his absence.

And do you know I felt strangely content. I am the sum of my parts. I enjoyed being Cinderella & going to the ball. I enjoy having different worlds to observe & participate in (& write about). I am grateful for the privilege of being a wife & mother, for all its mop & bucket moments. Perhaps I should stop looking for one place to fit into. After all, we women are supposed to be complex creatures aren't we?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April Fool's Day

Ha ha! Today is April fool’s Day. I was awoken by my son jumping into bed next to me & giving me a gentle kick & a punch, “because it’s the 1st of the month.”

From this point on, my somnolent morning routine descended into a comic strip farce. My 8 y-o loves the Beano & finds the (same old) pranks (coin glued to floor, jam on door handle, squirting door bell etc) hysterically funny. He has a treasure box filled with snapping chewing gum, plastic flies, fake blood, cockroaches etc & he draws them all into service on April Fool’s Day.

I tried to carry on much as normal, ignoring the ‘japes’ going on around me courtesy of my own Dennis the Menace & Mini Minnie the Minx.

So anyway we had yoghurt on my son’s toothbrush, my son stuck a plastic fly inside my husband’s tube of toothpaste, he then swapped all the cereals round into different boxes. Cornflakes in the muesli box etc. And also added more plastic flies in the boxes. My husband had planned a far more dastardly breakfast trick though. He had put salt in my son’s orange juice. Suddenly 8 y-o not so amused.

My husband, undaunted by this set-back, then padlocked the zips of our 8 y-o’s school bag together having 1st filled it to the brim with the poor boy’s underpants, enough to maintain the modesty of his entire class & a few spare.

He also filled his trainers with flour.

Our 4 y-o not to be outdone, wandered around putting ‘fly in ice’ cubes in our juice, in full view of us, & has taken some of her brother’s snapping chewing gum, to school to try out on one of the boys in her class.

Thankfully then it was time to go to school. I had my brief moment of being 'Cool mummy' who actually had thought of a joke & performed it, when I (completely inadvertently) played my own 'prank'. A navy estate car pulled up behind us & I, thinking it was the parent giving him a ride, said “your lift’s here."“ My son got out, tapped on the window & went to open the back door of the car, only to discover it was a complete stranger he was trying to hop a ride in. Oops. Not so funny. He enjoyed it though......

What is it about boys (& men ) that love practical jokes?? It was the same last year. I just don’t think of these ideas. My husband is full of them though. It’s the same with telling jokes I’m afraid. I fulfil all the gender stereotypes on that one.

I tried to find out the origins of April Fool’s Day & how widespread it is. For my son in an international school, it could seriously back fire. I was glad to discover it is widespread in Europe. Not sure about America & Korea, the 2 main other nationalities in my son’s school. My son has a few silly errands he’s going to get his schoolmates to do, nothing too heinous.

Anyway I have discovered that the origins are pretty obscure but it seems to have coincided with the coming of spring since the time of the Ancient Romans and Celts, who celebrated a festival of mischief making. The first mentions of an All Fool's Day (as it was formerly called) came in Europe in the Middle Ages.

The most widespread theory of the origin of April Fool's Day is the switch from the old Julian to the Gregorian calendar (now in use) in the late 16th century. Under the Julian calendar, the New Year was celebrated during the week between March 25 and April 1, but under the Gregorian calendar, it was moved to Jan. 1. Those who kept to the old tradition, were often mocked and had jokes played on them on or around the old New Year.

In France, this took the form of pranksters sticking fish on the backs of those who celebrated the old custom, earning the victims of the prank the name Poisson d'Avril, or April Fish. (No I don’t understand that either…)

But the theory can't explain why the pranking tradition spread to other countries in Europe that did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until later.

My husband and I were talking about how our parents on April Fool's Day would always reminisce about ‘The Spaghetti Tree’ Hoax. Just shows how times have changed. This was in 1957 when pasta was an exotic unknown. The BBC did a documentary about the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland, and the phones were jammed with people asking where they could buy such a bush. I hadn't realised quite how effective a hoax it had been till I looked it up online.

We always check online for the BBC’s April fool hoax story. I quite like trying to work it out. My husband suggested this story about a naked pole-vaulter in Paris. Perhaps Paris girl can tell us if she saw him? But I noticed it had been posted on 31st March.

Personally I think it might be this one I mean can pythons really eat alligators? And Python Patrols?

I guess it just goes to show how bizarre many things in the world are. What do you think?

If you’re interested, this site lists the top 100 April fool’s of all time. I liked the one about Nixon re-running for president.

But check out these top 10 worst April Fool's of all time. Here.

Actually quite awful to read. Can you believe Saddam & his brother Uday told people that America was lifting sanctions against Iraq, only to then say it was an April Fool’s joke, OR to say they were increasing food rations to include bananas, chocolate & pepsi. How NOT funny is that? And what a sick joke to play on your people, but I guess, when it comes to cruelty, they were the meisters. Evidently they ran out of ideas pretty quickly and kept repeating these same two jokes on April Fool’s Day. I guess humour wasn’t really their strong point.

Then there’s the Romanian one about how these families’ prisoners wd be released, only to be told, having travelled all the way there, that it was a hoax.

We have our own little April Fool in Albania this year. As of yesterday huge banners have been going up everywhere saying “Shqiperia ne Nato” Albania in Nato.

Despite their huge cache of unexploded, un-decommissioned explosives, despite women & children working in munitions dumps doing this 'decommissioning', despite a huge explosion in Gedercs last March in one of these decommissioning factories, which was right next to several villages, killing & maiming quite a few people, despite being one of the most corrupt countries in eastern Europe, Albania is deemed ready to join Nato….. Now that is a joke.