Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Spring Fever

Spring has finally arrived & the weather feels properly settled in Albania now. I just love, love, love this time of year. Of course temperatures are already like a (good) English summer. It's 'sandals & cotton skirts' weather now. Even the evenings & mornings have warmed up. And everything is vivid green, our reward for SUCH a wet winter. It is a very small window here when the young leaves are bright on the tree & everything is bathed in a literal lime-light. A vivid & verdant citrus green. All too soon, everything will turn a dull grey-green as the dry dusty summer takes hold. For now, the light is dappled, the fields are waist deep in buttercups, strawberries are being sold along the paths, the park is full of Albanians emerging from their hibernation. It is said that Albanians 'exist' for 4 months of the year & 'live' for 8 months, because of the wet winters & miserably cold apartments, power cuts etc.

But just as things seem to warm up, the academic year starts hurtling towards its conclusion. School finishes in only 6 weeks. I always wish this time of year lasted longer. It feels like we spend most of our year here in winter, with 6 weeks of summer before term ends & 6 weeks of Autumn before winter really sets in; and most of the summer in England (partly because there is no one left around here to do things with.)

So events are stepping up. Spring fairs, international dances, more visitors, reports to write, exams to prepare & mark etc. with the net result that blogging has been squeezed out.

Added to this my 2 children have been ill/had a duvet day/thrown sickies (delete as applicable after you hear the story)
My son's day was last week. He loves school & is almost never off sick, & certainly doesn't fake it. At the weekend we had travelled 5 hours south to an outdoor centre my husband was going to use for a team building retreat for his staff. My son, as school council rep, had been with his school that day up to Shkoder to distribute toys & supplies they had collected to help the children of flood victims up there who lost their homes. Shkoder is 2 hrs north. So our son spent 4 hours travelling there & back before getting back at 5p.m, only to hop into our car to be whisked down to the south of Albania that evening. So in one day he went from the north right to the south of Albania, all 600 km of it.

After 2 days back at school, he woke the following morning with a headache, complaining that he felt very tired. He said 'In Maths yesterday I knew the answer was 11, but I couldn't get my mouth to say 11, it just came out with 16, my brain felt so tired' Clearly time for a day off, he reasoned. And I thought it would probably do him good.

So abandoning other plans, I resolved to nurse him & a very sick husband who now had the cold we had all had, except his had strangely morphed into man-flu overnight....9 y-o played happily with lego for a few hours in the morning, then decided to get out the infamous 'Kids in the Kitchen' cook book. After much deliberation, he settled on chicken & vegetable soup, & banana cinnamon muffins (with his special adaptation of- chocolate chips.) Our much sicker, adult invalid was very grateful, it may even have speeded his recovery. And I think it did 9 y-o a lot of good having a quiet day. One on one relaxed time with him. At the end of the day he said, “I really enjoyed today, mum.” And so did I. Chores can always wait........

The same thing happened a few weeks ago with my daughter at a rather busy time. I laboured the point that it would be very boring at home with just Mummy, doing boring jobs & not able to play with her.... She wasn't feeling well with a cold & was right up to normal but not quite a fever, so once we had agreed she could stay at home, she went into 'Full Sick Bed Routine' mode'. This involves, plumping up the pillows, sinking back onto them whilst asking, in special, slightly quavery voice, if she can have breakfast in bed, & then struggling to the end of her bed to play a story tape (the only time she ever listens to them...) before sinking weakly back into her plumped pillows to munch her cornflakes whilst listening to Fantastic Mr Fox.

However, after a few hours she usually tires of this, & on this occasion, she made a remarkable recovery, getting herself dressed & asking if she could come to the shops with me (our cleaner was there so could have watched her) She skipped all the way to the shops, AND back, & then suggested we go for a bike ride in the park as it was 'such a lovely day'. (Probably because she wasn't at school..... ) I was beginning to feel ever so slightly 'had'. She biked up the hill all around the park, we stopped for a coffee & one of the mousse-like hot chocolates they sell here, had a rather loud whispered conversation about why the lady at the next table had 'orange hair'; I explained she had dyed it to cover the grey, whereupon she said, again very loudly that she didn't think the lady had 'done a very good job' as she could still see grey. At times like this I am very glad most Albanians don't speak English.... Saves a lot of embarrassment. Though I couldn't do much about the rather pointed staring at this poor lady's head.

And then she biked all the way home again.

Once home, I said, in what I hoped was a firm, & authoritative tone, “Now I really must get on, I have lots of jobs to do. I did warn you it would be very boring being at home today, didn't I?”

To which she replied. “It's not at all boring for me, Mummy. I just like being with you'

Oh she's good, she's very good. And did I fall for it?

Hook, line & sinker.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Our children are very lucky. They have 4 fantastic grandparents. I only had three (that I remember) & my husband didn't have any grandfathers in his life. I remember my grandfather particularly fondly, simply because he made me feel special, & seemed interested in me, & in my opinions & ideas. He also seemed to like my humour & to share a joke or pull my leg. That's how I remember him anyway. But all three were an indelible part of my childhood & memories.

The only trouble is we live a long way away from our children's grandparents; one of the hazards of ex-pat life, & becoming increasingly normal for many in our global village world. I know they don't like it & to be honest nor do I, when I consider it very important that our children have close ties with their grandparents. And even though we are doing this now, I find part of myself secretly hoping (hypocritically), that my children don't make the same choices as us, as I would quite like to be 'down the road from my grandchildren'.

However, last week was one of the pluses when one set visited; & going home every summer is another, when we are based with their other grandparents & our children regard it as their home in England & do a thorough check of the house to ensure everything is in its rightful place & unchanged.

A friend, who lived overseas in Asia for 10 years, said she felt the children's relationships with grandparents were stronger as a result of being overseas. I didn't believe it at the time, but more & more I think I agree.

For example, if you didn't live far apart, the children wouldn't have:

  1. The anticipation of grandparent visits here & trips back to England.
  2. The fun of creating annual summer memories in Britain with grandparents
  3. The chance to go through all the familiar routines every summer back in “grandparents' world”.
  4. The chance to stay with grandparents for an extended period of time, rather than just seeing them for the odd w/e, several times a year.
  5. The heightened appreciation of them because they are not around & being seen all the time.
  6. Getting postcards & comics in the post.
  7. Having them visit us here & being able to show them round 'our world'.
  8. The fun of receiving all the goodies brought out.
  9. The chance to do an Easter egg hunt in July at Granny & Grandpa's house & barbecues in the garage at Granny & Grandad's house & other such 'traditions' accidently developed.
  10. The chance to have their undivided attention for a whole week or more at a time.

I'm sure there are lots more...

On this visit re. No 8, we received such thoughtful gifts:

For our son

A saxophone strap, to stop the earth's gravitational pull taking hold every time he lifted the instrument to his lips, causing him to pitch forward with the weight.

A book of easy tunes complete with play-along CD

For our daughter

A pint size apron & a “Kids in The Kitchen” cookbook because I had said she doesn't really 'play much' with toys (true), so she is very difficult to buy for. This was perfect as she loves cooking with me.

For me

REAL Vanilla extract for all my baking – very expensive & very yummy. & totally unavailable here in any guise.

For Hubby.

A DVD of some of the 6 Nations rugby which he so loves & we can't see here.

Then of course there was all the Earl Grey tea, Yorkshire tea, yeast, extra mature cheddar, ebay purchases to stave off the rapid disintegration of my husband's wardrobe, lego from my son's saved up pocket money, Easter eggs, birthday presents & so on.

Apart from our Grand Balkan Tour over Easter, the children wanted to show Granny & Grandad round, to get them up to speed on developments in Albania in the last 2 yrs. So apart from pointing out all the new tarmac, newly opened shops, street lights, newly paved park, finished apartment blocks, we showed them the large lime green toads which croak noisily in the zoo lake next door every spring, hanging in suspended animation, froggy legs trailing motionless in the pond water.

We also showed them the abandoned military vehicles & tunnels up on the hill behind our villa; the shabby little zoo which we live next door to, with its unkempt & bedraggled eagles (proud symbol of Albania. Am sure there's a metaphor in there somewhere), a 'lone' wolf, 2 shy, not sly, foxes, a scaredy cat locked in a cage inside an animal enclosure (domestic cat) & the entertaining brawling bears, as well as the new additions (last week 2 ostriches, this week somewhat bizarrely, a donkey in with the llamas & turkeys next to the lions.) It keeps you on your toes, you never know what will be there next time. We also went into school to meet the teachers & look around (again) All important rituals for the children.

They also enjoyed having stories in bed with Granny & Grandad every morning, & a particular highlight, doing the rocket 'science' experiment Grandad had brought out from a newspaper article complete with all the necessary equipment such as alkaseltzer to make the rocket 'blast off' etc. Great fun.

On the eve of their departure our daughter said “I hope I manage not to miss them too much”.

And so the next day, after they had left, we set to, with distraction tactics, making the gingerbread ladies in the "Kids in the Kitchen" book, complete with 2 piece swimsuits, which so appealed to my 5 y-o. Unfortunately we couldn't find the large cookie cutter, so instead of making 20 large ladies, we made 80 tiny gingerbread girls, & I laboured away icing them with itsy bitsy pink bikinis, whilst 5 y-o lost interest after doing about 3 & ambled off to watch a film. It's at times like this that you need someone with time, experience & patience, who is not in a hurry who could have iced them & engaged 5 y-o with stories & the novelty of 'not being mum', whilst I got on with supper. Someone like a grandmother would do nicely.........

Thursday, April 8, 2010

'Paradise on earth' George Bernard Shaw

More visitors. Grandparents this time. Great excitement. We've been doing a Balkan tour, Monte Negro then into Croatia. Beautiful. Here's a taste.

Dubrovnik was called 'paradise on earth' by Shaw & 'The pearl of the Adriatic' by Lord Byron. The old city is entirely curtained by thick fortified walls which you can walk along the tops of (2km round). Inside, the city is bursting with churches, museums, monuments, the '3rd oldest' pharmacy in Europe in a Franciscan monastery, (selling potions & poultices since 1391) & polished cobbled streets, & uneven staircases. The water beyond is azure blue & sparkles with islands dotted across it.

This lovely city was bombed in 1991 by the Yugoslav army. No strategic point to it, sheer bloody mindedness. 200 military, sailors, police & 100 civilians were killed defending their walled city. It carried on being attacked for over a year. UNESCO & international aid funded the reconstruction & it has been done beautifully. When you look down on the terracotta clay tiled roofs, you fully comprehend the extent of the damage. So many are new, bright & clean. Tragically, it is probably the best it has ever looked, with such sympathetic restoration. Too high a price to pay. We remembered how shocked the international community was by this mindless act.

We also went to Kotor, in Monte Negro, another fortified, walled city on southern Europe's deepest fjord. Yes there are fjords even in the south. This city had walls built all the way up the mountain enclosing the fortifications at the top, a church half way up, as well as the labyrinth of streets down below. I love the way they have lit it at night.

I thought all the hillside terracing in Albania was quite a feat but these walls were something else.

Having grown up on an island, I love the novelty of simply getting into the car & driving over the border into another country, even if the Albanian border guards do seem to devise a new document requirement especially for us every time we attempt a crossing. Albania has borders with Greece, (& more than a passing resemblance to the Greek attitude to paying taxes too....),Macedonia, Monte Negro & Kosovo. And you can get a ferry over to Italy too. We've only driven into Monte Negro & Macedonia so far. But it's nice knowing when the going gets tough we can just jump in the car & drive somewhere a bit more civilised.