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.