Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year


Well, it's New Year's Eve. We are safely back in Albania.
I have discovered a few things I didn't know,namely:
1.With clear rds you can drive from Albania to Bosnia in only 9 ½ hrs, not 16!
2.Bosnia is ¾ covered by forest, yes 3/4! And is beautiful with mountains, river canyons & pretty valleys.
3.That on a 4 wheel drive all the tires need to be the same or the circumference will be different (2Pi r etc) & so cause big problems for the 4WD mechanism. Guess what? Ours were all different....More noises, more repairs needed.
4.That in the space of a week, we could spend a third of the car's value on getting it fixed.
5.My husband will run over & kill a puppy rather than swerve on icy, snowy rds to avoid it & cause an accident. I know this is what you should do, I am just glad he was driving as I think I would instinctively have swerved. Fortunately our dog-besotted children were both asleep when this happened.
6.That the effects of a holiday can be erased so fast with the appearance of pot holed roads, mad drivers, death wish drivers, daily power cuts & a house hovering overnight at 5 degrees & 10 degrees during the day.


Both Mr Ngo & my hearts sank as we crossed border. I had been to a 'cross cultural' talk the year I arrived, which talked about when you notice your 'grace levels' going down & you get unreasonably angry & irritated by every little thing, that you normally cope with. e.g the traffic, the bureaucracy, the litter, the bad driving, the noise & pollution, corruption etc. yes I have been like this for about 2 months! But the speaker said that this is caused by the stress of living in another culture particularly if it is very different or difficult (e.g developing etc) This happens about every 2-3 months & you need to get out to recharge your batteries.


Normally this rejuvenates you to enter the fray once more. This time however, despite not having had a brilliant holiday, so it wasn't 'end of holiday blues', we still felt depressed! Mr Ngo said he thinks he's getting to the stage with Albania that he got to with Sri Lanka. Fed up with everything & wearied by the never ending fight against bureaucracy, unfair taxes, & hurdles the Albanian government put in International organisations' way to make it so hard for them to grow & make a success of his microfinance organisation. This for a perfectionist adds to his stress at being thwarted constantly from doing well.
It just so happens that we are going to try & return to the UK next year. Our eldest will be 11 in May, so it is a good time to repatriate in time for secondary school. However, for my husband who works in international development, this could be easier said than done! So far Mr Ngo has changed career 4 times, from Army, to British Airways, to children's charity to overseas development in his 21 year working life. All very successfully I might add. He reassures me that if he cannot get a development job back in the UK, he will opt for career number 5 & retrain as a teacher & send me out to work full time for a year whilst he qualifies!

I have come to the conclusion, that he lives by Mark Twain's quote “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
He's much more of a “throw off the bowlines” man & I am a “safe harbour” kind of gal. I never used to be, but now I am. I am tired & I want to go home. I hope 2011 is the year we manage to do so.
We are off to celebrate New Year with friends of 5 different nationalities. On such occasions it's nice to dress up. However in an Albanian winter when you know everyone else's house is as cold as yours, you opt for Practical not Party Frock. And of course when, anyway, you always get given 'shapka' (slippers) to put on, it rather defeats the fashionable effect of little black dress, tights & heels. So thermal vest, woolly tights, plus socks & at least 3 more layers it is.
Albanians have been 'warming up' with their fireworks night & day for the last few days. At midnight in Skenderbeg square, all hell breaks loose. People let off fireworks in the crowd, in the street, everywhere. It's utterly mad, chaotic, dangerous & very......Albanian!
We will be watching from the safety of friends' 7th floor baclony!

Happy New Year one & all!


Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Sarajevan Samaritan. Our Christmas Tale.



My winter's tale of Balkan adventures seems to be becoming a regular fixture. For the 3rd

year running we have had an adventurous ski holiday, on each occasion, the adventure being just the getting there!


This year's has to win the prize though. We set off at 6a.m to drive to Bosnia; through Albania, through Monte Negro & up into the mountains where Paddy Ashdown goers skiing. An 8 hour trip.


(Above, a digger removing an avalanche from our mountain road!)

We got to the capital of Monte Negro, Podgorica in 5 hours. This was where the snow started. Our speed halved from 80km to 40 kmh. It was falling thickly, the roads were covered & there were no snow ploughs in sight.


The conditions carried on getting worse & worse. Fog, sleet, snow. As we drove up the Tara canyon to the Bosnian border, through tunnels & a winter wonderland of thick icicles & snow laden pines, we came to 6 cars stopped on the road. Ahead the road just ended, in a wall of snow & beyond it was a digger digging out the road which had a massive landslide of snow across it. It was about 20 feet high. The children wondered if the digger would unearth a car beneath this avalanche. It had obviously happened very recently. Fortunately no car was buried. This little event took an hour.


We also had to keep putting on & taking off the snow chains so as not to damage the tyres, as the road wavered between slushy covered tarmac & snow packed roads.


By 7p.m we were just getting to the turn off to climb into the mountains where we were advised the road was impassable (it was also dark & snowing heavily) So we had to take a long detour. By this point we had been going 13 hrs (had had 1 coffee stop but no lunch stop, to make the most of the light, & run out of rolls, tangerines & biscuits) & we were getting anxious about our 4 wheel drive which wouldn't disengage when we changed to 2 wheel drive. (We were later to learn another useful piece of mechanical advice; you just reverse to disengage it. That knowledge could have saved us 600Euros).......


At 8 p.m 14 hours after leaving Tirana, we heard the noise we were dreading, as something ominous made a sudden, horrible grinding clanking sound & we ground to a halt On the side of a mountain road, in the dark, snowing lightly, very few cars passing, -15 degrees & 8 o clock at night..


Now what, we thought? No international breakdown recovery, in a foreign country, where we didn't speak the language.... We did the only thing we could do; phoned the guy we were renting our ski chalet from. And said 'Help!' We waited in the car with no heating in -15 for 2 hrs.


Zlatko turned out to be our guardian angel. We couldn't have asked for better help if we had constructed a detailed job description. He spoke fluent English, was calm, efficient, & so very, very kind. He called a breakdown recovery service, (turns out they didn't want to help because, understandably, we didn't have an account with them, but in true Balkan style, he knew the general manager so 'persuaded' them to help). He kept calling us back with updates, then drove from the ski resort to where we were (a 50 min drive) to collect me & the children to take us to the ski resort, whilst Mr Ngo waited with our car & went with the breakdown vehicle into Sarajevo (a 1.5 hr journey).


We arrived at the resort at 11.45p.m. We were greeted by Zlako's parents & given apple cinnamon baklava & warmed up by the roaring wood burner in the cosy wooden chalet. Meanwhile Zlatko drove back into Sarajevo, another 50 minute drive, met Mr Ngo at the garage & took him back to his own apartment where he put him up for the night. The following morning he drove both of them back to the ski resort.


Today, Christmas Eve, his parents drove us from the ski resort into Sarajevo to collect our mended car, which had had to be moved to another garage which could find & fit a spare 4x4 part. Zlatko paid the bill at the first garage. He has been phoning the garage & checking progress.


It turned out the car wasn't ready. So we went ice skating at the rink where Torvil & Dean won gold in the 1984 winter Olympics & then Zlatko who insisted on meeting us, & this is where it gets really embarrassing, drove us to to the garage so we could collect our suitcase of Christmas presents left in the car. Our old Isuzu was jacked up 6 feet in the air on a ramp, with another car under it in a tiny crowded garage, so after the mechanic had given Mr Ngo a guided tour of the underside of our vehicle pointing out all the (many) other things wrong with it, or badly mended in Albania, they had to then get a ladder out & Zlatko & the mechanic held it whilst Mr Ngo climbed up it, opened the back door & climbed in to retrieve the suitcase & our Dwarf Christmas Tree, emerging seconds later wobbling atop the ladder & waving the midget pine triumphantly aloft. This was just too much, I couldn't watch, I felt so awful about the whole debacle. The kids reasoned with me:


“Mum, it's not at all embarrassing, we're children & everyone knows children like presents. It IS Christmas Day tomorrow after all.”


Zlatko then drove us back to his apartment where his parents took us back to the ski resort. No amount of arguing, protesting, offering remuneration for petrol etc. prevailed. They said they felt bad for us that the snow had all melted on day 3 & wanted to help give us a good holiday! However they did finally accept our liquid & edible presents offered under the guise of “Christmas.”


I am sure hospitality is as much a part of Bosnian culture as it is in Albania & frankly it puts the West to shame. How many of us would put ourselves out this much for people who were strangers & foreigners merely renting an apartment from us? And refuse to accept any remuneration, petrol money & wave aside our profuse thanks as if it were nothing. It was a truly humbling experience.


This man was a civilian defender in Sarajevo during the 92-95 siege of Sarajevo. He was on the front-line. With generosity of spirit & character like his, I am not surprised the indomitable Sarajevans held out during the longest siege in modern history with no water, gas or electricity for 3 ½ years. They coped & persevered in horrific & dangerous conditions, being targeted by Serbian snipers in the hills as they went about their daily lives. They helped each other & kept going against the odds. A great fictional account, but based on real life stories is 'The Cellist of Sarajevo' by Stephen Galloway, which gives a graphic example of what daily life was like.


I am sure the war taught the Sarajevans something we have learned living in a foreign culture where infrastructure is not always established & where it is not always possible to be self sufficient. That is, that we are interdependent. We need each other & we should do all we can to help our fellow neighbour. And it is something we feel privileged to have experienced on many an occasion.


The original parable of the Good Samaritan was Jesus' response to the question 'Who is my neighbour?' when Jesus said we should “Love our neighbour.” The answer given showed that our neighbour is not the person who lives next door, or someone local or someone who can repay us or simply our friends. In the story the man who actually helped the injured man was a foreigner, an alien, a hated person amongst Jews, a man of different, or no religion, a merchant, who knew the value of time & money & the 'cost' of helping, but he extended the hand of practical friendship & did all he could for the man.


In much the same way as our Sarajevan Samaritan did for us.


Monday, November 29, 2010

British "Mustn't Grumble day".

Although we live in Albania, the 90 strong little school my children go to is 50% American. So it goes without saying Thanksgiving is given as a holiday. The school has a British director & follows the British National Curriculum (Don't ask, I've no idea why) but Thanksgiving is non negotiable. And really, what's not to like? A 4 day holiday towards the end of a long 16 week term. Hooray, or to get into the American spirit, yay!


However us Brits, & indeed the Europeans here, feel slightly 'left out'. And of course being all about 'Thanksgiving', gratitude &, Heaven forbid, expressing it, it sits slightly uneasily with the British psyche. But we all felt we wanted to mark it in some way as the Americans were all having their Thanksgiving dinners somewhere, after playing in the annual Turkey Bowl, the 'friendly' American Football match, which, though Mr Ingo & our son play, they were not invited to join in with. So we felt we needed to mark it in some way for ourselves.


So I suggested to the assembled Brits & honorary Brits that we have a “Mustn't Grumble Day”. It seemed suitably, well British. It is now an unofficial Tirana Thanksgiving European Tradition. Last year it took us to the beach. This year, as it has suddenly turned wet, to a shopping mall & play area. We only have bowling & very expensive ice skating left & we have exhausted Tirana's child friendly offerings. I should add that the British contingent in Tirana is tiny, tiny, which perhaps explains why we felt the need to assert our own tradition.


We spent the day together & had fun, reverting to British type very quickly. We all escaped for a coffee whilst the children played. The coffee took ages to come. This was of course noted & remarked upon, but still, we thought, mustn't grumble, so we patiently waited, & of course didn't mention a thing to the waiter & still left our tip, even if slightly underwhelmed by the non existent service.


It was a lovely relaxing, hilariously familiar day. We talked about the remembrance service, tutted about the Albanian president holding up proceedings by arriving late 'just because he could', reminisced about the Defence attache's splendid spurs, talked about what a jolly affair the Guy Fawkes night had been, if unBritishly mild at 20' . We even discussed the Royal wedding. I am sure none of these subjects would have crossed my lips living in the UK & out for coffee with friends. But it was British Mustn't Grumble Day so we had to fly the flag.


The rest of my Thanksgiving w/e? Well: I took the kids out for Breakfast Pancakes (they are willing participants in American culture), walked 10 mins up to the clinic to drop off yet another of my daughter's urine samples, then we walked back, all in the pouring rain, looking in vain for a bus to take us home. There are no bus stops signs here, youjust guess or watch people. Our car was being MOT-ed & we are not very used to taking buses. It took us an hour to walk home, during which time ONE of our buses passed us. Right at the entrance to the road our house is in. One bus in an hour. Grrrrrrr.


Our car failed its MOT. Still only on two minor things: steering & suspension......


We had a power cut from Saturday night (during dinner with friends), through to Sun afternoon, 3 hrs of power then another all nighter power outtage.


On Saturday afternoon, Mr Ingo (aka my husband), was changing the light bulbs in the sitting room, & our daughter was handing him the screw driver. The glass light cover fell (because Mr Ingo discovered it didn't have all 4 screws in place) & sliced our daughter's cheek as it bounced onto the sofa. Said light cover was 14 inches square & weighed about 2 pounds.


At times like this I feel particularly vulnerable living somewhere with as limited medical resources as Albania. The good thing is you can call the (lovely) American Dr any time & the entire round trip takes less than an hr. No long queues in A&E. The down side is, you just have a general practitioner sewing up the gash with 3 stitches & you just hope he paid attention in medical seamstress classes. If not, our daughter, as my husband joked with her, will forever after be able to go to fancy dress parties as a pirate, with a ready made & genuine scar rakishly slashed across her cheek. I thought our 6 y-o took this in remarkably good spirits, considering she would never entertain going as a pirate anyway, quite apart from being told she would be scarred for life (which wouldn't go very well with her princess outfit she said). Fortunately our daughter is used to her dad's style of humour & just rolled her eyes at him. Equally fortunately, being so young I am sure it will heal very well.


And when you see how close to her eye it cut, you really do think, I mustn't grumble, this could have been a whole lot worse.


And for that we are very thankful....


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dear So and So

Last week I had one of those situations where you write a letter & then burn it. Or rather the cyber equivalent, you write an email & then press delete.
It was a situation that really upset & hurt me & left both my husband & I perplexed & dumbfounded. We just felt shabbily treated. And it was over such a small thing. The trouble with situations like this is you can't say anything & so it doesn't get dealt with, so it forever changes your perception of that relationship.
So anyway it got me thinking about those Dear So & So letters Kat introduced over at her blog 3bedroom bungalow. And I decided I would write a few of these to express my frustrations at other (but less personal) circumstances we live in & ones which are responsible for my comparative silence over this Autumn.
Dear Landlord,
Please, please could you take our advice, honed in the fires of bitter experience (to date 7 electrical items destroyed by power surges), & buy yourself a surge protector for the modem we share?

To lose one modem, I grant, is unfortunate, to lose two is careless, but to lose 3 to power surges, in the space of a few months & do you not see a teensy bit of a pattern emerging?

Oh & while we are on the subject, could you also get an electrician to mend our (& your) electrical safety cut-out circuit, so that a.) we are safe & b.) when all these power cuts happen we could actually use the generator which has sat idle for 4 months now tantalising us with its hefty, useless back-up bulk.

I know, I know, the damage was caused in our fault & we were cavalier, I admit, to plug things into sockets with such 'gay abandon', without any consideration of the consequences of doing such a thing, but it was a guest of ours who wanted to charge his mobile phone &, well, silly us, we said “Go right ahead. Use our electricity. Enjoy!”

Whilst I have your attention, do you think you could also fix our blind (broken since we moved in 3 yrs ago), our daughter's window, the oven (the fan has broken & is burning everything I cook), oh & when you light a fire in your sitting room 2 floors below, the smoke climbs up to the third floor & instead of carrying on up, it seeps out into our sitting room, filling it with smoke, to the point where you can't sit in there.

However, we have found a solution to this; we light the wood burner whenever you have a fire & all the smoke goes up the chimney. This is not an unpleasant solution, & I know how you like to find 'home made' solutions, but, as you can imagine, it rather limits my daily activities. I have not, to date, found a stoker to keep the home fires burning,whilst I go about my daily life.

Yours
Ever Patient Paradise.


Dear Internet Provider Number 1.

I know you are facing large hurdles in getting Albania 'online' but really, is stringing our internet cable across the street from our tree to a pole on the other side really the most sensible solution?

Because there is building work on both sides of us, there are a lot of concrete lorries, cranes etc. passing by. Twice now a lorry has driven through our internet wire severing it. Fortunately our landlord has a (rapidly dwindling) roll of insulating tape & he has made the pole higher but there is a limit to how high he can go.

I admit sometimes our internet problems have been down to the landlord's modem breaking, but you could come & help a bit sooner & better still not just shrug & say you don't know what the problem is. It's all very nice speaking to you every day on the phone, but I am not phoning for a chat, I mean, really I don't even speak to my husband on a daily basis on the phone. But if I did he would soon get the message that something needed attention, so why don't you?

2 ½ months is a long time to be without internet. I have unavoidably developed a '40 a day Balkan Passive Smoking' habit as a result of resorting to internet cafés. Please sort it out.

A Gradually Losing Patience Paradise.


Dear Internet Provider Number 2

How can we be 20 metres short of being able to be connected to your provider? Don't you want our business?

A Perplexed Paradise.


Dear Internet Provider Number 3.

Thank you, thank you for getting us online, though please refer to my letter to Internet Provider Number 1 to see that I really do not think this 'high wire' stuff is a good idea. I See you have installed a new wire.... from our ROOF terrace, 4 floors up, across our courtyard, over the road beyond the houses opposite to the apartment block one road over. I realise I know very little about these things but it does seem a tad...... precarious. Though I admit, I wish I had been here to see you set it up...

It's a shame with all the power cuts I am still not getting internet very regularly.
But thank you for your efforts which, as well as acrobatic, have been better than other providers.

Yours
An Increasingly Wearied Paradise.



Dear Electricity Board,

A small tip. Invest more money in infrastructure. Winters are wet, the country is covered in high mountains & large rivers. Hydro electric is the way to go. One of the few things Hoxha got right. But it needs upgrading badly, it can't cope with today's power needs.

I know things have improved a lot & I know it's a difficult job, though I have also heard your board is the most corrupt company in Albania, but we'll gloss over that for the moment.

Our electricity supply has actually got more erratic over the last 3 years. Could you possibly send someone to look at our antiquated little substation because every time it rains, I mean EVERY time it rains, our power goes off, & stays off. For a long time. And our generator doesn't work because our landlord has not fixed the fused circuit that connects the generator, which was fused when our friend plugged his mobile phone into one of our sockets. But I digress & it's hardly an electrifying tale (except perhaps for our friend who had a narrow escape..)

And so the flat is cold, gloomy, with no heating (except the smoking wood burner) & 2 gas rings for cooking. Oh & the electric gates don't work of course, so I have to park up the road & carry all the shopping & my school bag up the road, across our flooded sewagey courtyard & up 3 flights of stairs.
SO I would really appreciate it. Maybe it's something as simple as a hole in the roof ? Could you just take a peek?

Yours
A Powerless Paradise.


Dear God,

We have had a beautiful warm colourful Autumn this year, for which I am truly grateful. Thank you, it's been lovely.

I know Mediterranean climates have wet winters & actually I don't mind the rain too much (as long as I have a warm, well lit flat to be in....) I love the mountain-ricocheting thunderstorms too.

But the trouble is rain here means several things:
Power cuts – floods - sewage drains overflowing in our courtyard - lots of mud on the unmade up roads - & no internet often (even when there IS power). And traffic worse than usual & crazier than usual. I mean yesterday cars were driving on pavements to beat the queues....

So you see I was just wondering.... obviously I am not asking you to move mountains (though of course, I know you could.) or to shift the rain shadow, alter an entire climate, but how about sending just a little bit less? It seems we get a month's quota in a day. And then the same again the next day. It's like a Mediterranean Monsoon.

Alternatively perhaps, my son's suggestion, could you make it colder so it fell as snow?? (& then there'd be no school, & we could make use of the mountains by toboganning & maybe even 'crosscity' skiing instead of using the car.) But I'm not convinced because we'd still have power cuts from overload, so I'd still be cold, internet-less, light-less & have to get by on stove-top pasta

A Precipitation Averse Paradise.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Blood feud



“This belongs in a history text book, not an event occurring in the middle of Europe in 2010.”


So spoke the director of the Evangelical Alliance in Albania. We attended a rally on Saturday morning in the middle of Tirana, joining with 1000s from churches across Albania to protest the killing of a pastor in Shkodra. My husband worked with the pastor's sister in law. The pastor himself has left a wife, a 6 yr old & a 9 yr old. (Incidentally, the poster above says "No to blood feuds, yes to life.") The woman on the podium is the pastor's wife.


The killing was the result of a blood feud. (I'll tell you the story in a moment)


It was incredibly moving & yet incredibly surreal,because of what it was about. I've been teaching Romeo &Juliet this term & have got the students to research blood-feuds in Albania & compare it to 16th century Verona. It really has brought the play to life as they are living in a context where “ancient grudge break(s) to new mutiny” & “civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Amazing, a 400 year old text, & it's still happening.


There isn't much history of protesting in Albania. I think it's the fear legacy of the communists probably. But the churches came out in force on Saturday morning to commemorate this brave man who died as a result of this anachronistic practice that still rages on in Albania.


In 2010. In a European country. One which is desperate to join the EU. It is scarcely credible.


Blood feuds were an ancient device (pre FIFTEENTH century) for resolving conflicts & bringing about 'justice'. It has been common in many cultures but rarely has it been so formally codified as it has in Albania in the Kanun (The Code) the code governed all aspects of life in the northern clans (marriage, property,taxes) & the 2 most important aspects were (& still are) Honour & Hospitality The Kanun also attempted to regulate revenge killings & reconcile feuds between rival clans.

If a man is killed by someone in a rival clan (even accidentally), then the family of the murdered man must preserve family honour by killing a member of the rival clan, preferably the murderer himself, but failing that any close male relative. It isn't rocket science to work out that surely that means eventually both clans will die out. But this went on for generations.

The Kanun method of ending blood-feud was 'besa' a truce brought about by negotiation; a marriage between families (Friar Lawrence's intention in Romeo & Juliet), a Meal of Blood truce, or the payment of a 'tribute' (that's cash not compliment) But it didn't always work & wasn't always permanent. And so the cycle would begin again involving the male members of society. This led to men locking themselves in a 'lock-in' tower for years sometimes, till a blood feud was resolved. Such as this one.

This is in Thethi, the only remaining one in Albania which is accessible to visitors. They wd climb up, pull the ladder up, climb up to the next floor & pull the ladder up again. With very little light & only slits for windows, it must have been a miserable existence. Because the women aren't vulnerable in a blood-feud, they would bring food to their men folk.


Communism suppressed blood-feuds pretty comprehensively for 45 years, (they were pretty good at suppression).However, they re-emerged in the 1990s & have become a serious & ongoing problem. The Code excludes women & children from revenge killing, but, whether because the Kanun code was maintained orally, (not written down until the 19th century), or whether it is just blood lust, is hard to say but the ancient Kanun customs have taken on insidious interpretations. Many young boys cannot go to school to leave their house (the Kanun says you are safe in your house but if you leave it you can be killed. Furthermore any male relative is now fair game, no matter how distant. In fact women & children have also been killed on occasion too.


The Director of the Evangelical Alliance who organised the rally, appeared on TV with four young Albanian boys who are “in blood”. Victims of a blood feud. They appeared on a talk show under police escort, wearing black hoods. One boy described how he had never left his house in 13 of his 14 years. This was his 2nd time out. He has had no education. The government pay the family 5000 Lek 'compensation' There are currently about 1350 families still caught up in a blood-feud.


Shkodra is particularly badly affected by blood-feuds. It is 2 hours north of the capital. The system of 'besa' has broken down too. One well known activist, of the Reconciliation Missionaries group who had helped negotiate hundreds of reconcilaitions between families, was himself murdered in 2004. A revenge killing of different sort.


The pastor in Shkodra had an uncle who had murdered someone. He was very careful for about 4 years, but then said that he was a pastor & he needed to attend to his people & church & couldn't do his job in hiding, & shouldn't live in fear. He had actually been interviewed on camera about it all a few months before but at a conference, not on TV. He had said that if he was killed, then at least that would save the live of the 23 other male members of his family as the family have said they do not intend to continue revenge killings to retaliate. He was shot in broad daylight outside his church office in the middle of a busy street.


Oh & get this. The mother of the murdered man, which precipitated the feud, would say to her other son every day for 7 years as she put his meal in front of him.


“How can you sit there & eat when your brother's death goes unavenged?”

It really is like something out of Shakespeare isn't it? It was Lady Capulet in her feud who called for Romeo's death “I beg for justice...Romeo slew Tybalt, Romeo must not live.”


The man was caught (& will be out of prison in 10 years if he's good). Albanians have told me that the sense of honour is so strong that people don't mind being caught, in fact they are proud of what they have done for the family honour.


Of course many Albanians are appalled by this practice too & are desperate for their country to move into the 21st century, but so much here thwarts that goal. The government need to take it seriously of course & clamp down. But how do you begin to change attitudes? Suppression clearly didn't work, you have to change hearts.


Well, that's what Pastor Proj's life was about. He preached reconciliation & forgiveness. And love. He is a modern martyr & his death has certainly had a big impact. I hope it is not in vain.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

An Italian Foray













Sorry for a distinct lack of transmission recently. 2 reasons: the boring one is what seems to be our annual Autumn internet blackout, lasting 3 wks so far. The 2nd & much nicer reason is we have just had 'Fall Break' & been to Italy. One of the constant wonders (to someone from an island) is the serendipity of living with 4 countries on one's border, (incidentally do you know which 4 they are?) & Italy just across the water, which is, together with Greece, in fact the most visited of the 'spitting distance' destinations, (probably because it its the most developed).


Hoards of car ferries plough back & forth across the Adriatic sea leaving at 11p.m & arriving around 8a.m the next morning. They are all manned by Philippinos who work them 7 nights a week, floating (literally) stateless & living a life between countries & having an abode in none. They cram the cars & huge numbers of lorries in so tightly that when we came to return to our car, we had to weave back & forth in a metallic maze until we found a way to squeeze through the gaps between cars, only to reach a point too tight & so we had to double back & start again.

We were going to spend a week on the 'spur' of the heel of Italy's boot. A place called the Gargano promontory – limestone cliffs, beech forests, escarpments, wild & rocky beaches one side & sheltered powdery beaches the other. And of course endless white washed medieval towns with cobbled streets & bleached churches on rocky outcrops.

The south is becoming very fashionable, but it is still cheaper, slower paced, poorer, with strong traditions & family ties & much friendlier. In fact, more like Albania than Northern Italy, we felt. And the traffic? Not mad at all, very civilised in fact, but then I am coming from Albania.

We stopped off at a co-operative in Bitonto to buy some of the area's famous olive oil, & have breakfast. Much like Albania, many o f the cafés & bar s only serve drinks, so we went into a little unassuming shop with the ubiquitous fly-screen tassles. I remember these from my childhood (IN Britain. Perhaps there were more flies 30 yr sago.......?) They are on every shop & apartment in this s area of Italy. This little shop sported a huge variety, for its size, of prosciutto crudo & hard gran padano style cheeses, so the shop assistant kindly made us rolls stuffed with parma ham & some salty cheese which we devoured sitting under this window.











We had lunch in this farm restaurant which was full of 3-generation-families enjoying lunch together, & consisted of whatever they had cooked that day, on this occasion, at least 10 mini courses of olives, antipasti, tiny soup portions, pasta etc., ending with

nuts, mini desserts & espressos. It took about 3 hrs. Fortunately our daughter

fell asleep, & our son had 'The Young James Bond' for company.






Then we stayed overnight in an old monastery in Trani where we breakfasted in a citrus tree-ed

courtyard. Our 10 y-o took this pot(below), experimenting with Mr Ingo's cast off camera. We were even served olive & sun-dried tomato focaccio bread. Salty, doughy & warm. You can get used to anything for breakfast in this kind of environment.












I must admit, loving cooking as I do, I was very excited at the prospect of eating genuine Italian food (as opposed to an Albanian version of it) & going to their food markets. We saw fishermen selling their catch from the night before & in Vieste men selling mushrooms in baskets.

Even the supermarkets sold huge brown multi floreted dark brown mushrooms which had more in comm

on it seemed, with alien life forms than those anaemic white things you get in blue plastic cellophane-wrapped tubs in the UK.













We spent our days on the beach surfing (the children in wetsuits), me doing life guard duty (spent too long in warm climes to cope with cold water anymore) & MrIngo surfing with no wetsuit, we also mountain biked in the national park & played beach cricket: as well , of course, as sampling the local red wine, cappuccinos & gelati & roaming round the little medieval towns' old quarters. On one occasion we stumbled upon a carabinieri Fiat Cinquacento in one of these impossibly narrow, hilly cobbled streets that locals drive around with such aplomb & alarming speed. The 2 policemen were escorting a young man, in hand cuffs from his home, pursued by his 'mama' clutching her cheeks & wailing dramatically. And we hadn't even stumbled upon a film set.


The only down side was our car breaking down but even that meant we got a new starter motor & a check up in a reputable garage with a mechanic who knew what he was doing & didn't rip us off. And the owner of our self catering apartment even offered us his car to use that evening should we have wished to go out somewhere.

Next time we'd like to go down to the heel & also in Basilicata, visit Matera, with its ancient cave dwellings inhabited since the Palaeolithic Age & the Mediterraneean's most extensive troglodyte complex, now , of course turned into hotels & houses, but still awe inspiring. A UNSESCO world Heritage Site. Mel Gibson's Passion Of the Christ was filmed here. This is definitely one of the perks of living abroad, the accessibility of travel options.

A welcome break, I've finally kicked off my chest infection & it's still warm back in Albania. And I have a large stash of imported olive oil, red wine & other food goodies to see me through the winter.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Wee Celebration.

My daughter is 6 years & 5months. She has worn nappies for 6 yrs & 5 months. Until September 20th 2010. On that day we went cold turkey. Complete withdrawal from nappies.

A friend back in the UK told me what she had done. I decided to take her advice. She bought 2 mattress protectors, & made the bed up twice over so that in the night when her daughter wet the bed, she would just strip off the 1st sheet & protector to reveal the next layer of sheet & protector. She said her daughter just decided to stop wearing nappies. It took 3 wks of 50% wet, 50% dry nights until she cracked it.

So I drew a deep breath & decided I would try it. After all, I could manage 3 wks couldn't I? My 6 y-o has never been dry at night. Aged 2 ½ she went about 7 days of dry nights, & I thought 'Great, we're nearly there'. She never did it again for 4 yrs. I can count on the fingers of (possibly) both hands the times she has had a dry night.

Her paediatrician in the UK has always said not to worry, some children just are late, no investigations till she's 7, don't 'lift her' at night, wait till she's ready. So I waited. And waited.

Of course I felt somehow it was a failure on my part. My parents (the Dr Spock generation) had us all dry, by day, at 18mths, with the 'catch whatever's passing through after a meal' school of thought. I don't know when we were dry at night but certainly we weren't late. Until I admitted it to someone & suddenly the stories came 'flooding' out, I had had no idea that statistically, in fact, it's very common.

My son was potty trained really quickly, & very annoyingly, by my husband. There was I, going by the book, doing star charts, soft rewards, lots of praise etc. but still we had very regular 'poo' accidents. So Mr INGO took it upon himself to ask a good friend of ours who had had 4 children what she would recommend. She said, without hesitation “Bribe him, with edible treats.” So he decided chocolate biscuits were the order of the day. Reader, it worked. Immediately, instantaneously & without a blip. Grrrrrr.

Our son also decided he wasn't wearing nappies at night & aged 3 was dry at night. I remember one night waking up rather startled to hear the sound of someone in the bathroom. But my husband was in bed next to me. We had no guests. Was it the Phantom Bathroom Burglar?

Nope, it was 3 y-o. He had got himself up, walked up the two little steps into the bathroom, done a stand up wee, in the dark- (gets that from his father), & retraced his steps, all without putting a light on, or calling for us. To coin a phrase I was 'gob-smacked'. Where did he learn to do that I wondered? Maybe that had been part of my husband's alternative potty training methods.....

So I assumed this was genetic. Early potty trainees. Hooray. Imagine my surprise when my daughter followed no such pattern. Chocolate biscuits? If only.

She had accidents every day at a nursery aged 2 ½, then managed to survive the 3 hours at nursery “pantus intactus” as it were, only to wee on the floor of our garage in Sri Lanka, as soon as we got out of the car at home. It was so perfectly timed, I found it hard to convince myself it wasn't deliberate. Potty training whilst living in Sri Lanka, at least, was easier climate wise. Tiled floors, hot weather, no clothes needed.

But on 20th September, I decided I would just have to 'hit the wall' & run through the pain barrier of being a 44 yr old having to cope with broken nights. So I did. And we had a dry night. Then another, then another. From the day of removing her nappy, my daughter has been dry every night for 2 wks without fail. I am ecstatic & she is pretty pleased with herself too. Though I do find myself wondering if she was perfectly capable before but just couldn't be bothered....

And like her brother, she gets herself up in the night & takes herself off to the loo. Unlike her brother, the 1st night this happened, she just yelled for me from her bed telling me she needed the loo, so I escorted her, then got her a torch & told her she could go by herself & so she does now, most nights, wakes herself up & goes to the loo.

So it seems it's actually much more a mental thing than a physical thing. I am now kicking myself at the pounds I have wasted on nappies wondering whether she could have done this aged 5,4 or even 3.

But my daughter, in so many ways, is a law unto herself. She just lets me think I'm in charge, when really, she knows the truth & every now & then gives me a little clue to prove the point. Mum training the child....? Ha, you wish....

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Beaching it.

One of the nicest things about living here is that when we come back from a 'summer' in England we know we will always have at least 4 if not 6 wks of warm weather (up to the 30s) to enjoy.

So we often go to the beach. The water is still warm & the beaches are empty. Albanian have a very funny attitude to swimming 'out of season'. The local pool, heaving from end of May onwards, is always quite quiet at the beginning of September, & in fact it is always closed by the 15th of September. Albanians seem to think that the minute August ends, if you stick a toe in the water you will contract flu. Believe me, there are far more likely disease scenarios than flu from our local pool & local beach So it means the beaches are all quiet too. And of course Albanians generally, like France & other Mediterranean countries where August is sweltering, if they can do so, take most of it off, but then go to the beach......

So we went to the beach. This is guaranteed to be an interesting cultural experience. Once we had made it to the coast, we turned North to head up an unmade up rd so that we were on a small beach well above the conurbation of Durres, where raw sewage is pumped into the sea & friends have complained of rashes, itchy skin & tingling sensations after swimming there.

Unfortunately Mr Ingo somehow managed to drive into a 'pothole'. I was map reading, vainly looking for clues as to how to get out of Durres onto the right rd. (using our 1 & only map which is of the whole of Albania.) Mr Ingo had pulled round the car in front who was dawdling. (Usual scenario; on the phone, changing a CD & lighting a cigarette whilst steering with his knees) - OK, so maybe only 3 out of 4 of those were true. In fact he probably had a small child on his lap steering for him. So neither of us saw the 3 ft deep, 3 ft wide hole until we fell in it. Well the passenger side wheel did & the underside of the car bellied onto the tarmac. Bit of a pickle. Fortunately in these situations, which are quite normal here, a passer by stopped, grabbed hold of the bumper & told Mr Ingo to reverse whilst he was effectively lifting our car. It worked. The guy gave us a cheery wave & continued in his crossing of the road. I was very thankful we hadn't been driving our 4x4 tank at the time!

So we continued on our unlikely way past the ubiquitous concrete mushrooms, a few lone houses & disused factories until we got to a military base, where we turned up hill & parked on the small cliff overlooking our little bay. We then proceeded to pay our 200 lek for a lounger & umbrella. The umbrella is vital because of the sun, & the umbrellas don't come without the beds. The price is non negotiable, despite the fact that most of the equipment is obselete; my umbrella collapsed on me removing most of the skin from one elbow & trapping me momentarily inside. It may look very Mediterranean & 1st world, but believe me, those umbrellas & sunbeds are ancient.

On the plus side, the little café at the top has a man who comes down to the beach to take your order, disappears off again only to return with our cappuccinos in china cups & saucers on a tray. Bliss.

Not being very frequented, this beach is reasonably litter free & quite pretty, though this year somewhat marred by a landslide which had sliced the beach in two.

However you'll never guess the main reason I like it. It is, believe it or not, because you can't get cars onto the beach. This was an eventuality that I had not prepared for BA (Before Albania) In Albania, people drive on the beach, for fun, for practice, for......I'm not really sure what. Slaloming through sunbathers, ball games, toddlers paddling in rock pools; it is, not surprisingly, unnerving. It seems nowhere here is free from traffic. Nor is it free of boy racers.

On one beach trip, to a different beach, we drove onto the beach to park, (on the very edge) & were entertained for the rest of the day by a couple of lads one 7, one 11 I would guess, driving a very old clapped out Merc along the beach. They weren't going fast enough to be joy riding & they had been fishing & were collecting a friend, but nevertheless they ploughed repeatedly up & down. You can just abt see the old Mercedes in the background of this photo. (& the litter if you look closely.) This beach isn't very busy either, but in Durres, a city beach, there are quite a few cars & loads of people to negotiate!

And the other big cultural difference is a Western/Southern Europe divide I surmise. Or developing/developed world one. What people take to the beach. The Albanians will go to the beach with their towel. Possibly a small plastic bag with a sanduic, qofte or byrek in it & a soft drink. That's it. And when they leave, the towel goes home with them. The plastic bag of food/leftovers doesn't. It is just left on the beach where they were sitting. Always.

Cue arrival of the Brits, the Germans, the Americans. It looks like a beachside garage sale: cool bags, boogie boards, beach bags, (no windbreaks but many bring umbrellas), buckets, spades, inflatables, changes of clothes, a towel per person, the list, & the bags, go on. I guess it's that Western disease of 'needing' all the equipment for any eventuality, (& being able to afford it.) the beach is a simple pleasure, the expedition there is not.

So what would you consider absolutely essential for the beach? And what marks out your nationality from others when on the beach??

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Bumpy Landing.

I'm never quite sure what it's called. The jargon has it that 'transition' is moving on to another country, 're-entry' is moving back to one's 'home' country. I'm not sure what the word is for going back to the host country after a summer in the home country. But I do know the symptoms & emotions. And in my experience the transition is never easy.

The children find it easiest of course. In fact adapting back to the UK was more of an issue. They were great with all the moving around & behaved well, despite table manners seeming to abandon them whenever we were with either set of grandparents. They also seem quite feral compared to kids in the UK, as here they go to the shops by themselves, run way ahead on the roads, browse at the other end of the supermarket to where I am. It's much safer & also there's more of a community feel. People look out for other people's children. I guess I just needed to teach them about a different cultural context which they're not used to. It hadn't occurred to me, after all, England is home.......

Of course 're-entry' encompasses leaving friends & families, leaving behind an exciting & busy time to return to routine &, (in our case), a bit of a social wilderness. Being a developing nation it also involves adjusting again to amenity issues & infrastructure frustrations that it's so easy to forget after a summer in the UK..

And as a family it means jiggling the pieces to fit the jigsaw of our family unit together again after a summer apart. I am now after 5 yrs of this, at least familiar with our family abode morphing into a Bachelor Pad every summer, complete with hydration packs (Camelbaks), for cycling, draped over the backs of chairs, copies of The Matrix, The Bourne Trilogy & Lord of the Rings littering the sitting room floor & a fridge devoid of much beyond beers & chocolate bars (apart that is, from some of the food in there that I had left 8 wks before. I kid you not.) This effect was only added to by a 22 yr old work colleague living with him. I couldn't even get into his room, as the floor was being used as a wardrobe. And I'm quite glad my Albanian didn't stretch to what the cleaner thought of it, as it didn't sound very polite. I have to say I wasn't totally without influence though. On the lads' bike rides I did insist they picked blackberries for my freezer, so they dutifully went out armed with Tupperware in their Camelbaks, & contrary to other photographic evidence, brought quite a lot home...


Our 1st inkling that transition was going to be a bit bumpy was when my husband (henceforth to be known as Mr INGO (i.e.international non governmental organisation, because 'my husband' sounds so pedantic. Ha!) Mr INGO didn't meet us at the airport. We were met at the airport by a friend who said he couldn't get there. Literally. Mr INGO had arrived back from work that evening to discover a 4 ft wide, 4ft deep trench had been dug the length of our street, & so he couldn't drive the car out. This happens all the time here. No warning is given. So our friend dropped us at the end of our street on the main rd, & then helped us negotiate our 6 bags down the unmade up road, under some pipes, along the edge of the trench & then form a human chain & pass them over a pile of sand & pipes & then edge our way round the rim of the trench, whilst the digger & cement pourer carried on working feet away from us. Still it provided evening entertainment for all the workmen & builders who were doing their bit watching the construction proceedings, (a universal character trait of workmen it seems) This was 10 o' clock at night by the way. They work through the night sometimes. The whole of our 1st week back in fact.


And that is our current daily reality Our quiet little dead end street has become a hive of activity. On one side, the motel, which was knocked down, has had very deep foundations dug & has concrete being poured in, & on the other side, the villa 2 down from us has been sold , flattened, the hill is levelled & it is now swarming with a crane, diggers, bulldozer, 2 concrete mixers etc.



There was a quiet Albanian family there with a bit of land, vegetables, an unfinished house, the upper floor only half built, obviously the remittances had dried up; & a little Downs Syndrome girl amongst their children. Sadly, unusual to see a Downs child kept in the family in Albania. I just hope they were offered a fair deal for their home. I sincerely doubt it though. I imagine they were offered 'enough to make a poor family think it seemed a lot' But they were in a prime spot next to the zoo lake in a dead end rd. I hope they're not squashed in some little apartment now with no land, no view & no space. See the before & after photos?

The construction goes on all day so it's incredibly dusty. We all have an urban variant of hay-fever, caused by concrete dust. It has completely changed our immediate environment, which was a quiet forgotten little corner on the outskirts of Tirana, off the beaten track out by the zoo & the park. Quite weird to be living somewhere which is gradually being subsumed into a suburb of Tirana, to have it happening literally around us.

Then of course, there have been the power cuts, always seem to be loads when we 1st arrive back, plus our electrical safety circuit, or something, has failed so our electrics aren't very safe, so our landlord informs us. And that also means the generator (which we are only allowed to use in the evenings, once dark!) doesn't come on either. He also says it's our fault because we used a plug socket we shouldn't have (?) & so we need to fix it. And the tank keeps running out of water. Have I forgotten anything?

Added to all this we have all had a horrible gastric bug which laid me low for 9 days, then my son for 6, then on our last trip to the beach last w/e my daughter got it the day we arrived. And you don't really want to know this, but a really horrible bug, I'm talking blood & mucus in my poor daughter's case. We have survived travels with children in India, South America, Sri Lanka without getting anything like this. I guess we don't have global immunity to the different bugs in the different countries we keep hopping between. And now my 'very kissy' daughter has, albeit in a very loving manner, passed on her cold to me, which she had for a month.

Oh joy.


Friday, September 3, 2010

Global Nomads - A Conversation in the Science Museum

On our recent visit to London, we were house sitting for friends in a quiet little Muse street tucked away behind the V&A. It was another world- so quiet.

As we had been rushing around a lot, we decided to have a quiet day & enjoy the luxury of being spitting distance from both the Natural History Museum & the Science Museum. So later in the afternoon we popped out & went into the Science Museum. We made a beeline for the 'interactive room' whereupon my children busied themselves with a crane & shovel contraption, essentially bailing sand ad infinitum. The sort of thing you can find in several playgrounds.

As I was observing various children participating in this & secretly hoping my son wouldn't get too bossy about who did what & who wasn't pulling their weight, a voice behind me said, "Don't I know you from somewhere?"

I turned round and immediately recognised the woman.

"Yes." I said, "You taught at my son's school in Sri Lanka, & I did substitute teaching there."

That was 2 1/2 years ago already. We had a nice chat & catch up and then she said,

"So are you based in London now?"

"No, Albania. What about you? London?" I replied.

"No, Thailand."

Global nomads whose paths intersect for 10 minutes at 5p.m on a Sunday afternoon in the summer. You know the cliche, small...... etc

So what is your strangest coinicidence or unlikeliest meeting?

When a friend & I were Inter-railing round Europe, we met Uni friends in several places/countries, but we weren't surprised; we were on a European tourist trail, seeing the sights. I did once bump into an Oxford friend at the top of the Empire State building (again at 5p.m) one random Autumn Tuesday. That struck me as quite a coincidence.

And of course when I moved to Albania thinking I would know no one in such an obscure country, one of my closest Oxford friends, who lived 5 minutes from my house, had an au pair, who used to babysit for us occasionally. I now discovered (to my shame I hadn't realised) she was Albanian & lives in Tirana. And a fellow English teacher at the school I taught in, in a little market town in Oxfordshire, whose desk was next to mine in our department, also turned out to be working in Tirana.

So go on, tell me yours..........

Friday, August 27, 2010

BFGs & Warhorses

I seem to be stuck in a Roald Dahl thread right now, but two of the simple little highlights in London, for me & my 'too fast growing' family, were 2 moments when I realised my children are still capable of make believe & wonder.

We were travelling to London on the excellent Oxford Tube service which has a loo, wireless connection AND up to THREE children go free with an adult. Bargain (admittedly about the only bargain I discovered during my stay in Rip-Off Britain) My 6 y-o this summer has (thankfully) developed a taste for listening avidly to story tapes on a Walkman (remember those?), wearing enormous ear muff headphones (cos the dinky little ear plug ones fall out all the time) It has made travel a lot more palateable for her, and me.

She was listening to 'The BFG', a family favourite, & in my opinion, Dahl's best by a long way. Rather magically, she had just got to the part where they are travelling to London to deliver the dream to the Queen; they had crossed Hyde Park, and so had we, and as Sophie & the BFG leapt over Buckingham Palace wall & my daughter asked how tall the wall was, we went past it & I pointed out the high palace walls & Buckingham Palace beyond. Art meets life.

It was a great moment. "Wow! That's really the palace in there! The walls are so high, it's amazing the BFG jumped them in a 'snitchy little jump'." she said.

Of course, not wishing to miss an opportunity to impress my daughter, I said.

"I've been in Buckingham Palace."

I should never have mentioned it.

6 y-old's eyes lit up & she said,

"Wow, you've seen the Queen's bedroom, like Sophie!"

"Errrr, no actually, not the Queen's bedr..........."

"Oh so the ballroom then where they have breakfast?"

"Ahmmmmm, well, no, I saw some ante rooms on my way to the gardens, as it was a Garden Party...... And I did see Prince Charles & Lady Diana. And they spoke to us." (well, & everyone else gathered round). I trailed off.

The intricacies of extraneous Royal family members (whether or not direct heirs to the throne) was clearly distinctly underwhelming, only slightly less so than the mention of 'ante rooms', I mean whoever heard of them in fairy tales? Not a dicky bird.

She resolutely adjusted her ear muffs, stuck her thumb in her mouth & concentrated on listening to Geoffrey Palmer's dulcet tones as the Queen of England, nevertheless with her eyes glued to the bus window gazing out at the palace walls.

The second incident was with my son, & in a way it was the other way round. Life meets art. For the 1st time ever we had taken advantage of Kids' Theatre week when a child goes free with every adult ticket. My 10 y-o is an avid Michael Morpurgo fan, & loved Warhorse, so that was the obvious choice. He was utterly rapt. Apart from pantomime he has never been to the theatre to see a play, though in Sri Lanka he was in 2 school productions. He got totally absorbed in it, but at the same time, didn't understand any of the 'theatrical conventions' . He seemed quite at ease with people breaking into song, probably because of panto, but when they did a freeze frame whilst 1 or 2 actors carried on talking, he whispered,

"Why is everyone standing so still & not speaking?"

And the horse puppets (which were truly amazing, so life like & credible) had 1 person holding the head & 2 inside (I know, sounds like a panto horse, but it really didn't have that effect) The foal though had 3 people all working him, dressed as stable hands, & my son said,

"Why are three people surrounding the horse all the time? He didn't seem to get that they were working the puppet.

Maybe the 'suspension of disbelief' has to be relearned, once it has been unlearned as a child becomes an adult. As adults you just ignored the 'puppet handlers', because you understood they had to be there. The freeze frames, the singing, the birds 'flying' on long poles, the frieze across the back of the stage depicting war scenes etc. My son was obviously so used to films, it was puzzling to him, because so 'unrealistic', despite being a realistic story set in the 1st World War.

Fortunately, however, being a child & therefore flexible, adaptable & trusting, he accepted my waffle about dramatic techniques & got stuck in, even providing a very credible comparitive critique at the end between book & play for the benefit of his Godfather who hadn't read the story.

Next year I think we'll do The Lion King. That should push the boundaries even further, it probably covers about every genre possible.

And on the way home, on the bus, my 6 y-o daughter said,

"Mummy who is Father Christmas, really, cos I know he's not real."

And my 10 y-o son said "Shh, don't say mum, because I still believe in him & don't want to know."

Willing suspension of disbelief...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Tower of Babel

When we arrived in the UK, my son commented on how nice it was to hear English all around him again.
"I can listen to people's conversations & understand them." (clearly got his mother's genes there....)

In London, however, everywhere we went we heard numerous different languages, all around us, all the time, to the extent that my son asked what language people spoke in London. In fact a statistic in the Tower of London said that more languages are spoken in London than any other city in the world. I can believe it.

It was interesting to notice in shops, cafes & museums, waiters, assistants & curators spoke with foreign accents or spoke to each other in another language. It truly is a cosmopolitan city. I guess many of these are immigrants doing the jobs we are told Brits don't want to do anymore.

And in tourist shops like Hamleys & Harrods, we felt like the foreigners. We were definitely in a minority. It wasn't just the language, we also saw things that seemed quite different somehow. In Hamleys there were three very large lads, (I wont say where they were from) looking like (as my son put it) Augustus Gloops, each with one of those enormous bags they give you now to shop with. And each was dragging it behind him like a lifeless limb, because the bag was so crammed with toys it was too heavy & cumbersome to lift. My children were agog watching this display of conspicuous consumption. At this point, I confess, I was slumped on the floor by the Nintendo DS games, waiting for the children to finish their toothcomb search of that particular floor of Hamleys, having exhausted all the other floors (& me) previously. So when asked 'How this could be possible' (let alone fair), I resorted to similar 'literary' comparison & said they were like Veruca Salt (only boys).

In Harrods we felt even more alien, not only because it was more like the glittery, opulent stores you would find in Abu Dhabi airport than the reassuring familiarity of John Lewis, but also because once again the Brits seemed no where in sight or sound, it was full of foreigners & tourists.

We were going to the toy department, because an employee at Hamleys had told my son the lego selection in Harrods was actually 'much better' (in truth there wasn't much in it). To get to the toy department we walked through 'Pet Kingdom'. We had no idea what this was, but we were soon to find out. Everything for your pet is here, assuming that is, your pet has more in common with 'Trickywoo' of "All Creatures Great & Small" fame than the average family's pet 'labrador with a bit of terrier thrown in for good measure'.

You could get a 4 poster dog bed complete with silk sheets & a pink frilly canopy, a leopard skin dog bed, probably even a canine hammock, or doggy water bed. I didn't ask. We passed jewel encrusted dog leashes, before arriving in a room full of clothes rails with, you've guessed it, doggy coat hangers with dog tutus, dog mackintoshes, dog superman outfits, even dog bikinis on them.

Now I know us Brits have a soft spot for animals & are probably guilty of a fair bit of anthropomorphising, but I do not think, as a rule, we go in for luxury dog bedding, dinky doggy outfits & bejewelled dog collars.

So who is this (almost entire floor) marketed at? I know in America they have dog spas & probably dog therapy, & in the Balkans 'small dog as fashion accessory' & dressed in silly coats is very common, but surely not the British??

Anyway all this struck me as quite ironic that here we were in our 5th year of living abroad in other cultures, broadening our minds, adapting to foreign environments, yet London (& Oxford actually) struck me as far more cosmopolitan, eclectic & racially diverse than anywhere we've lived. It made me realise just how homogenous a society we live in in Albania. I mean everyone is ethnic Albanian. Apart from the Roma that is, who are marginalised & totally alienated in Albania. Nobody wants to emigrate TO Albania, most people want to leave (for America usually) so there are no immigrants there, apart from the few who have married Albanians, or ex pats working there temporarily. as a consequence other ethnicities are regarded with suspicion & overt racism quite often.

So my children hear & see sights in the UK they are totally unused to. They are used to seeing beggars on the street, dancing bears, people riding donkeys & animals getting slaughtered on the edge of the road, but they are totally unused to seeing a woman in a burkah (despite Albania beign 70% Muslim), electric wheelchairs & golf buggies, men with beards or people with bodypiercings. I had to stop my 10 yr old son staring fixedly at a guy on the tube with a Mohican & enough body piercings to keep a small jewellery shop in business.

Funny, I never really expected Britain to be so full of culture shock for them.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Tower of London

We have just spent a fabulous four days in London being tourists, house sitting for friends. A real highlight was visiting the Tower of London, So much to see, beautifully carved prisoner graffiti in the towers, the enigmatic murder of 2 young princes to investigate & the highly entertaining yeoman warders to listen to. Forget the Horrible Histories, these guys were the cat's pyjamas. They really brought the history of the Tower alive. Even the loos were an experience, being in a thick round tower, the most fortified loos I've been in.

And then of course there were the crown jewels, on display since the 17th century, & only one attempt to steal them. (It failed), they are now behind 2000 kg doors. I must confess to feeling a bit emotional (admittedly quite normal these days it seems) seeing the solemn regality of the coronation splashed cinema-screen-sized on the stone wall of a dimly lit room, & soaking up all that rich history, tradition & heritage represented in the Tower of London.

I also felt quite proud (yes, really), to be British as we filed through all the rooms leading to the crown jewels, thronged, as we were, by hordes of foreign tourists. This was my history.

I had to suppress the urge to explain things knowledgeably to my children in a loud (& clearly English) cut glass accent, as if this was all very old hat & familiar, despite the fact that we were there gawping too.

Of course most of the children's 'clear as a bell' comments put paid to any delusions of superiority & imperialist sentiments I might have entertained:

My son said “Mum those diamonds make the ones on your ring look like a little mouse's ring.”

My daughter then commented, “Oh I wish I had a crown like that. In fact I want to be a queen & wear crowns like the Queen wears.”

I think she believes the Queen wakes up, pops her crown on to eat her breakfast & then wears it to walk to corgis & watch t.v.

Actually some of the displays were more guilty of appropriating this casual, familiar air than I was.

As we filed past the Maces described as “versions of a fearsome medieval weapon”, there were 9 on display & one mysteriously missing, with the simple label underneath which said

“In Use”.


In what way exactly, one is tempted to wonder.......?


Then we filed past all the swords; the swords of spiritual justice, the swords of temproal jusitce, all in order, but “the Sword of State” ??

“In Use.”


Not “On Loan to ------ Museum”, just “In Use.”


Such casual little notices to explain the absence of a 'version of a fearsome medieval weapon” & an enormous “Sword of State” make for a moment's stimulating mental rumination.

So finally after all this ancient tradition housed within ancient walls, we had the rather bizarre & James Bond moment of arriving in the 'Jewel Room' where there was a moving walkaway around the crown jewel cases; & we were catapulted rudely into a 21st century 'viewing experience', gliding past the crowns. I had to go back & jump on it again 3 times to get a proper look at the jewels & take it all in.

I hadn't realised the Queen had so many crowns. The Imperial State crown had the 2nd largest Cullinan diamond in it, (the 2nd Star of Africa), Queen Mary's crown has 2 of the smaller Cullinan diamonds in it, amongst 2200 other diamonds. And the 1st Star of Africa (the largest Cullinan diamond, & the largest diamond in the world), was added to the sovereign's “Sceptre with Cross”.

Uncut it was 3025.75 carats. It's still pretty massive, the size of a (very) large goose egg. The children were particularly keen to see the Stars of Africa because their dad's cousin married one of the Cullinan family in South Africa.

So my son said “Wow, I'm related to the Cullinan diamonds!” though in the Gemstone Genealogy being only related by marriage, my 2 children would only be semi precious gems.........