Friday, May 29, 2009

Choices, choices

When we were in the UK we went to one of those big Tesco Superstores. As usual I wanted to stock up on various things you can’t get in Albania &this was the local supermarket for my In-Laws. The children wanted to look at toys, any excuse to go somewhere that sells toys, particularly ones that don’t fall apart in the car on the way home from a pocket money spree.

Every time we come back to the UK more is available & supermarkets are even bigger. This time it was bike stuff, camping equipment, even horse riding kit. In the supermarket…

This Tesco was not so much a Tesco Metro as a Tesco Metropolis. A whole city sprawl of retail under one roof, piled high, sold cheap.

We encountered the now familiar sensation of ‘choice anxiety’ How to choose between so many brands of one thing.

I also discovered a whole world of new products I didn’t know existed. I went to look for porridge oats and found oat with spelt, oats with rye, oats with millet. What about oats with...just oats?
Onto the peanut butter, here I discovered I could buy Pistachio nut butter, Brazil nut butter, Almond nut butter. Peanut butter is obviously ‘so last year’
Feeling a tad overwhelmed I sought solace in cooking ingredients and discovered agave syrup, & wild myrtle leaves in the herbs & spices (no idea what I might use those for).

Part of me loves the wealth of ingredients because I love to cook and try new recipes; part of me is overwhelmed & rendered incapable of making any decisions.

Mostly I am just flabbergasted that so much of ANYTHING is available.

I must admit we go a bit shopping mad when we come back to the UK. We don’t go near a shop in Albania, except to buy food. So there is a.) the novelty factor & b.) the child let loose in a sweet shop factor. There are always things that need replacing too, we get through electrical goods rapidly, because of the power surges & ‘dirty electricity’, our ‘furnished’ flat doesn’t include things like bedside lights, shelves etc, we have no English language library, we buy Christmas & birthday presents at home, next year’s shoes, next size up clothes etc.

I asked an Albanian friend of mine (who’s been sponsored by the Albanian President to do a Phd at Oxford) where to shop for X, Y or Z. She said ‘in England’. She buys everything there. So much so that there’s not much incentive for her to finish her Phd (& so her global shopping) on time….

In Albania, everything is cheap Chinese imported tat and lasts 2 minutes, or is imported from Europe or America & is hideously expensive. My husband took his office’s broken Krups coffee machine to repairers who said it wasn’t a real Krups, it was a copy, & wouldn’t touch it. And it had been bought from the main electrical chain in Albania.

So I have this strange love–hate relationship with supermarkets back in England, & certainly an element of hypocrisy too. Actually I prefer Waitrose, having done some research on this (NOT 1 of the big FOUR) They offer better deals to farmers, have better relationships with suppliers & are much less ruthless in their approach.

Tescos controls a third of the entire UK grocery market (1 in every £7 spent in all British shops is spent in Tescos), that can’t be good. It’s a dominance that increasingly diminishes our choice of where to shop. BUT I have to admit, I do appreciate the fact that I can get so much under one roof. I spend an awful lot of time scouring Tirana for things not only because shops run out & supplies are inconsistent, but because the fruit, veg, meat & fish is much better quality than in the supermarkets. Actually I prefer supermarkets for all the non-food stuff they produce.

Food in the UK it seems, is seen as a cheap, disposable commodity, but it is not cheap. It takes time, effort, skill & expense to produce quality food. Unless all we want is mass-produced, low quality food (like battery hens) Food now makes up a far smaller percentage of household expenditure than ever before even though financially & materially, as Britons we are fair better off than at any other time in our history.

When it comes to clothes, if a shop sells a pair of jeans for only £3, as Tescos once famously did, then surely any intelligent person would reason that either they are doing so at a loss as a one-off to lure in customers, or a garment manufacturer somewhere is being paid far too little.

The same is true of our food, & should be taken seriously, more so as this affects our health, Britain’s rural infrastructure & our natural environment.

Our farmers are skilled people, who can produce fantastic quality British food. As the recession deepens, & how we do business & generate wealth is reviewed, how we feed ourselves in an uncertain future, with access to certain resource becoming scarcer, is a question, which needs addressing. Just one example, 65% of apples (the same 3 or 4 varieties) are imported. Why, when we grow fantastic, and a huge variety of, apples of our own?

I think there needs to be a far stronger regulatory approach to bring the power of supermarkets under control, & to get a fair deal for farmers for their produce & to stop unfair trading practices.

Tescos (but also Sainsburys, Morrisons & Asda- the big 4) has been found to use aggressive tactics, warning suppliers to reduce their prices to them, or face being axed. Whenever supermarkets get involved in price wars, the supplier, the weakest link in the chain, always pays. Farmers are making huge losses.

Particularly in the current economic climate supermarkets are ditching their focus on food quality & green issues & competing in price wars in order to prevent customers moving to lower price supermarkets. But rather than sacrifice their own profit margins, they demand ever lower prices from the suppliers, the farmers. If it carries on, you wonder if they will have any British supply chain left.

The other visit we paid, after our trip to Tescos, was to visit the dairy farm of friends of my In-Laws. They have been farming all their lives, & are incredibly hard working, what you would call ‘salt of the earth’ people. Intelligent, articulate & very involved in the life of their community. They were delighted to show our children round their farm, including the milking shed, at milking time.

The dairy farmer told me that he felt dairy farming was in a worse state now than it has been since the 1930s when the milk marketing board was introduced to help the British dairy industry.

They have, through necessity, been diversifying. He now has a farm shop, a children’s activity barn & a cafĂ©, which opened that day. He says there is lots of money sloshing around for environmental projects& for diversifying, which is not bad in itself, but no money for farming itself, or any attempt, for example to ensure the Supermarket Code of Practice is being adhered to.
He said,

“I just want to farm my land”

Before correcting himself sardonically “Sorry, the bank’s land.”

When we move back to the UK one day, I’m going to try & shop locally, support independent retailers & farmers’ markets. Get a veg box etc. I’ll probably shop in Waitrose as well, (hope I can afford it) but I think I’m going to boycott Tescos who seem to be the worst of the bunch. I’m in training here now, shopping in a less convenient, more time consuming way, but at least I can still choose to go to a little greengrocer’s. Here in Tirana, people perhaps with small holdings, have a little shop which is their livelihood, I’d far rather support them. And I can see, as more & more supermarkets chains move in, they will lose their livelihoods. I guess it’s my Britishness rising to the fore again, wanting to support the under dog.

Meanwhile I’ll just have to quell my urge to try wild myrtle leaves & agave syrup & hope I can live without them…

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Not A Drop To Drink...

1. Our sewage pipes are connected. Hurray! (the landlord did it all himself) I can see them, not necessarily a good thing, but at least I can see they all join up - bright orange pipes snaking round the house & across the courtyard. They're above ground, still to be concreted over. So far they are working, even with no gradient, but it's early days. Today we noticed the next door neighbours digging channels & joining pipes in with our pipes through the wall. What has everyone been doing menawhile with no viable sewage system I ask myself??? Actually I'm trying hard not to think about it.
2. Our courtyard is dry & odour free for the 1st time in 3 mths. Swept & hosed down.
3. Water engineer & construction engineer friends advise we need to flush the system with chlorine. Having a tank system means water is sitting around & the micro-organsims are busy multiplying. My son's science teacher has offered to test our water. Our 'professional' friends in this field seem fascinated by our 'problem' & equally astonished that it could have happened at aall. Still they've also been helpful.
4. Landlord agreed to use chemicals. Yesterday he said he had put some down the well.
5. Bath water last night was a pale blue, rather than brown, (it was often brown even pre-sewage debacle) so am presuming chemical story was true & action was taken. Who knows what my children were bathing in. They preferred the colour though.
6. Have added yet another 'string of (partial) knowledge' to my bow. Been reading up on chlorination (gas, sodium hypochlorite & solid calcium hypochlorite) disinfection options. All seem very corrosive, volatile or dangerous, & require pumps, gas chlorinators & diffusers, precise quantities & chlorine has to meet certain standards. Landlord's solution of chucking chlorine in well probably as good as any. Or at least better than nothing..
7. Have been washing up in weak bleach solution, boiling water & showering with mouth firmly closed. I have discovered some bugs take 20 mins of boiling to cop it.(Didn't realise it would be so useful knowing a water engineer) Most it's only a minute though.
8.Husband thinks I am utterly neurotic and has been doing his teeth in the tap water since Wed (sewage water came through pipes on Tues) Verdict "I'm fine. Any microbes will be a million millionth part of the water in the pipes."
9. Discovered our children also never had their Hep A booster, despite several drs in diff countries checking our vaccination sheets & not telling us we needed another a yr after 1st one. Also we are all out of date for typhoid. Not only are typhoid vaccines not available here but a nurse friend who works at the international clinic here said companies who shipped vaccines to them at the clinic used mini lunch box ice packs & the vaccines arrive with a soggy defrosted ice pack round them. She said you couldn't vouch for their viability under those conditions.
So I'm going to carry on being careful(& neurotic.
10. Also got sink leak fixed (my Albanian teacher's husband) & car indicators mended (yet again) by another local contact. AND landlord fixed gate (been broken a month)

That's a pretty good 'To Do' list achieved this week. In fact, I don't think the landlord has achieved this much in a year and a half of us being here. Perhaps Sabotage & Disaster Creation is the way forward to get our landlord to act. Though I have to admit sewage coming out of the taps was a high price to pay for this discovery.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sewage Works (but nothing else does)

Today, I feel like I’m living in some kind of Mad Max, WallE, toxic dystopia.

First of all, our next-door neighbour has taken to burning his plastic rubbish. We had this in Sri Lanka. Welcome to the developing world. People burn their rubbish. What else can they do with it. Goodness knows how many dioxins I’ve inhaled over the past three and a half years.

Our landlord who lives below us, also recently decided he wanted a wood burner in his kitchen. His kitchen doesn’t have a chimney. No matter. Drill a hole in the wall, stick a pipe through & ‘it’s not my problem anymore’. It will just waft up to the tenants' balcony, & seep in through the children’s window.

But this doesn’t bother us so much, partly because when it’s cold, we’re not sitting outside on the balcony when their fire is on, but mostly because it pales into insignificance compared to other issues. We seem to approach things in this way all the time now.

This morning I was playing tennis with an Albanian friend who lives up in the hills overlooking the lake & she said,
“Have you noticed something funny about the lake?” I hadn’t.
It had a white, oily, toxic-looking substance glinting chemically in the sunlight, all round the edge & in patches in the middle too. She thinks maybe it was a chemical put in to control mosquitoes. (One no doubt banned in the States 20 yrs ago. That’s what was used in Sri Lanka)

Then this morning we turned the taps on brown water came out reeking of sewage. I had, in my early morning stupor stuck my hands under it before realising. I felt like Lady Macbeth trying to get the stench out of my hands.

All afternoon, in a bizarre reversal, I’ve been yelling at my children after going to the loo. “Did you remember NOT to wash your hands?”

So no shower after tennis, a day’s washing up piled up, a laundry bag full of washing
& my hair needs a wash. Oh & our typhoid vaccinations are out of date. What very good timing. And it’s not available in Albania. We would have to get it couriered in.

For the past 4 months our rd has become a lake in the rain, & then sewage water started seeping across the courtyard. The builders, building a new apartment block nearby, had, evidently, broken through the sewage pipe. It has taken our landlord 3 mths to fix it. A friend here, who is a construction engineer, said that either the sewage has backed up into the pipes or (as we have a well for our water) the well has been contaminated. (this happened in Sri Lanka during the Tsunami. The wells got contaminated with sea water & were rendered unuseable. So not sure how ours will recover)….
He couldn't understand how the cold water, which should be a totally separate system to the drains/sewer, could have been contaminated by sewage. Having lived here for a yr and a half now, I have to say I am not in the least surprised. Lack of know-how amongst workmen & the way things are built or mended here is quite unbelievable.

As an aside here to give you an idea, once at my son’s school, the Headmaster looked out of the front window to see one of their gas canisters on fire (used for heating. They should have had some valve thing on them to stop flames going back down into the gas bottle, but….it didn’t have this.) Out the back, it was also discovered that day, that someone had tapped into a substation & looped their cable along the back wire mesh perimeter fence which had somehow got exposed & made the fence 'live’. So the children couldn’t assemble on the front forecourt because of imminent danger of an explosion, nor on the back soccer pitch because of the live fence. They had to be huddled on the floor inside at the back of the building in case the gas canister exploded & blew out the windows. The Head walked out with a fire extinguisher thinking, ’This may be the last thing I ever do.’
Fortunately, he lived to tell the tale(& revise his job description). The firemen arrived as he was tackling the flames…. and stood around smoking. I kid you not!

Another example is a trusted Albanian friend of a friend fixed our starter motor (which a mechanic had caused to ‘blow up’) & discovered all sort s botched wiring, loose wires , short circuiting in our steering column. He told my friend that he hadn’t liked to tell me ‘because I was a woman’ but that there could easily have been a spark, which would have caused a fire or bad shock to me (some of these wires were poking out down by my feet near th accelerator)

You just get resigned to things being shoddy, not done properly or downright dangerous. But it still makes you very tired.

Back to the proverbial poo hitting the fan. The sewage may have seeped down into the well. He said it would need pumping out & all the tanks & pipes cleaned with an anti-bacterial chlorinated ‘flush’. I can NEVER see our landlord doing that. It would be very expensive. He has put a sewage pipe in, dug a trench about 6 inches deep so the pipe is not buried, and then concreted over it. He didn’t warn us of this, so the day he did it, I couldn’t get my car out for 24 hours. My husband said I should have just driven over it to ‘prove a point’. Well, leaving footprints in freshly lain concrete is one thing but 12 inch wide 4 WD tyre tracks??

Today our landlord is at least trying to do something about this ‘emergency’ as I see it. But his pipes don’t slope down hill at all, (1 in 40 gradient on the pipes required ‘normally’) and he has left no drain outside in the rd, just blocked it in, so rainwater has nowhere to drain to. I think the sewage will keep backing up.
At least we’re on the 3rd floor so it will be the landlord’s problem before ours, and so a better chance of it being sorted. I am so keen to pass on this helpful information, but I know better than to do so. When I tried to explain to both him & his plumber what the problem with our sink was & why he hadn’t fixed it, his response was, “your problem is you think too much.”

I long sometimes with every fibre of my being for a safe, secure, predictable environment. Sometimes I just want to go home. I keep telling myself;
‘This is what we signed up for, if we want to help the poor & work in development then we should expect this’. But it’s hard to make the words out through my gritted teeth sometimes. Other people, most people in the world, have to put up with this. I know.

The third world doesn’t have a reliable electricity supply, safe water to drink, rubbish collected, dangerous substances safely disposed of, law abiding traffic with safe, well maintained cars, access to good health care, things ‘done by the rules’. And it sucks, it really does.

I know, I know I’m a privileged westerner & I used to take all these things for granted ‘back home’. Not anymore. I know (Ernest before you post another comment) that I’m a wimp & I should just stop whinging. I just didn’t realise how hard I’d find it. Several Albanian friends, & I agree, say that the problem is I am not used to this. I am used to things working, and so it’s more frustrating. I also know how things can be in a developed nation. And boy do I miss them. So I have to adjust downwards. It’s a lot easier to adjust to having clean water, on tap, a regular power supply, a centrally heated home, well-stocked shops, a garden, & a fully functioning sewage system, which stays in its pipes. Now those changes I could accommodate. Oh so easily.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Questions, questions.

I have been tagged by Nappy Valley Girl & Potty Mummy. It’s nice to be tagged, but personally I don’t think they make very interesting reading. Also most of the 8 people I am supposed to tag next, have already been tagged, & I don’t feel comfortable tagging blogs I hardly know. So my compromise is I’m doing the tag but not passing it on. Hope this is ok folks.

So below are the 20 questions:

What are your current obsessions?
Finding extra curricular things for my children to do after school here.

Which item from your wardrobe do you wear most often?
My jeans. Having NOT worn jeans for 2 whole yrs in Sri Lanka, WAY too hot, I haven’t yet got over the novelty of being able to wear them again.

What's for dinner?
What ever I decide to make with the left over roast chicken, followed by Victoria sponge with marscapone & orange curd filling, also left over, from tea with friends yesterday.

Last thing you bought?
It can only be food. Shops are abysmal here for anything. It was wonderful juicy Greek oranges from my local shop.

What are you listening to?
100s of frogs croaking in the lake next door to us. They croak from now till September. But are particularly vociferous at the mo. It’s Spring you know…..

If you were a god/goddess who would you be?

Domestic Goddess. Not because I’m particularly domesticated but because I love baking.

Favourite kids' film?
Toy Story 2

Favourite holiday spots?
Seychelles, Peru, Argentina, Malawi. South Africa. Oh I can’t decide!

In UK; North Devon, Pembrokeshire & The Lakes.

What are you reading right now?
Just finished White Tiger. About to start whatever I can scrounge off people. English language novels hard to come by here. Best book I've read recently was "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson.

Favourite author. Thomas Hardy & George Elliot when younger. Modern author Rose Tremain.

Four words to describe yourself?
Reliable, loyal, chatty, energetic

Guilty pleasure?
Massages, though I don’t get to feel guilty that often.

Who or what can make you laugh until you're weak?
A friend who’s Head of Sixth Form at a school in London. The Prince George Blackadders are pretty funny too.

First Spring thing to do?
Walking through a bluebell wood. Not the 1st flowers but for me the definitive sign of English spring.

Planning to travel to next?
South Africa

Best thing you ate and drank recently?
In Albania, it has to be coffee. Definitely not wine. Best meal was at a restaurant called Vinum in Tirana. We went there 2 mths ago J

Favourite ever film?
Shawshank Redemption

Care to share some wisdom?
Kindness is severely underrated. And it’s the little things in life that often make a difference

What new blogs are you reading?
I found a completely different one called Threads of Loveliness via Millennium Housewife. It’s a craft site. I just love the pictures! And in partic the little mug warmers she made. Bit pointless, but looked very sweet.

Biggest regret. Not being able to have more children.

Almost American has also tagged me, with a different meme, so I’m doing it all in one go.

Six things that make me happy, unimportant things . . . this is quite difficult. It’s easier to think of the important things, which make me happy.

So here we are, trivial things which make me happy:

Friends replying to emails

Blue-sky sunny days

Hitting a good shot in tennis

People remembering my birthday

Comments on my blog

A really good cup of coffee/glass of wine/G&T

That's it. I think I prefer the idea Iota came up with of suggesting blog posts & getting people to vote on which one she should write about. Perhaps I'll do that... Oh dear need to resurrect Technoblonde again.