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.