Friday, June 25, 2010

Strange Meeting

The children & I flew to the UK on Mon, through an electrical storm. Fortunately the childen fell asleep as soon as we took off. They have slept through earthquakes in Albania & violent thunderstorms in Sri Lanka during the monsoon season, so I shouldn't be surprised. It was the worst turbulence I have experienced in 2 decades of flying all over the world.

The stewards had reached the middle of the plane & were handing out the food boxes when it hit. We were shaken about so violently they couldn't even make it back to the galley & they also couldn't stand up, so the two stewards knelt in the aisle hanging onto their trolley all the while. I'd never seen anything like it. It lasted over 25 minutes & was, frankly, horrible. eventually the pilot came on saying, "Sorry about that the wind completely changed direction & doubled in speed very suddenly." Don't they have computers to detect that sort of thing? He sounded like it took him by surprise - a bit disconcerting.

We have come for our annual summer visit to the UK & are about to disappear into deepest sheep country in the Lakes & then on the Grand Tour of Great Britain, so won't be blogging for a while.

But I must tell you that on Thursday I had a strange but lovely meeting. Iota & I finally met, 3 years after exchanging emails & meeting in the blogosphere. I never had a pen pal. She was my 21st Century cyber equivalent. She had looked at one of my links to a photographer friend & recognised the backdrop of many of the photos. It was the place in North Devon where she & her husband had met. So she emailed me. The rest, as they say is history, or in fact herstory. And my story.

We had seen photos of each other, skyped each other, but still I wondered what it would be like meeting someone you have never actually met. Like meeting someone you hear on the radio. So familiar, yet also unknown.

But it was great. We chatted for 5 hours. I discovered, amongst other things, that she is the 2nd oldest, she too has an older unmarried sister & 2 younger brothers. Her youngest brother, like my youngest brother, was the 1st to have children. And we found we got on as well in real life as we did in the blogosphere

We sat under the shade of a tree in her mum's gorgeous garden whilst the children played, finally drinking tea & eating digestives as we had promised ourselves we would do one day 3 years after we had first met in cyberspace.

And though I love blogging & the blogging community, you can't beat a real cup of tea in a real English garden with a flesh & blood friend (especially if accompanied by chocolate digestives) . I am thankful for the blogopshere that has enabled me to meet people I would otherwise never have met. But you've got to admit, it's a funny, old world.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ballet Balkan style.

One of the things I love about living in a different country is that it is often unpredictable, often surprising, & it encourages flexibility & adaptability (as well as tolerance & resilience of course)
Everyday life is interesting just because the way of life is different, habits, routines, behaviour is different & is a reminder that, whilst people are pretty much the same the world over, their way of doing things or dealing with things is very varied.

Here in Albania there is the more Mediterranean pattern; of afternoons being very quiet & quite deserted, as people take a siesta-style break in the middle of the day. In the early evenings everyone goes out for a walk, to see, be seen, 'take the air, enjoy the cool of the day in summer, & meet up with friends. Children are all up till all hours because they sleep in the afternoons.

Then there is the more Balkan pattern; of conversation sounding like heated arguments, business being done over long coffees in caf├ęs, horns blaring if cars don't shoot into action the minute the lights turn green, people telling you very directly it's time you got married, had another child, lost some weight etc. Albania has always been, & continues to be very much a mish mash, & certainly 'a law unto itself' - in more ways than several....
This struck me afresh at the week end when we went to our 2 children's ballet performance in the National Theatre of Opera & Ballet. Both our two have been having ballet lessons once a week. The ballet teacher had agreed to compromise her (to our eyes 'communist' style) intensive ballet lessons which are normally (& for all Albanian children ) 3 times a week for 1.5 hrs each time.

They have been working towards a performance of the Nutcracker & other pieces. Our two were desperate to perform on the 'very' stage they had seen the Nutcracker on at Christmas, done by an Albanian & Italian mixed ballet troupe. Turns out this ballet teacher, Moza, Albania's most famous former ballerina, teaches about 200 children, as well as a lot of girls & a few boys in their teens & twenties, several of whom are on scholarships to Italy but came back for the performance.

And it was a truly Albanian cultural experience. It lasted 2 ½ hours, with several interludes of long speeches detailing Moza's illustrious career as a former ballerina, lauding her teaching credentials & praising her multiplicitous achievements.

At the beginning there was quite a scramble & not a few rather heated discussions over seating, despite the fact that it was 'free seating', there were people with no tickets at all, insisting they had rights to sit in certain seats, there was the hapless, but fairly inconsiderate, TV cameraman who tried to set up right in our line of sight, slap in the middle of the audience seating. My husband gesticulated at him & said, 'We can't see actually, that's not awfully helpful being there, can't you go somewhere else please?' but, almost immediately, one large Albanian, with an even larger camera, waded in with a tirade about this camera man's position, who was half heartedly waving his video pass at him claiming rights to be there. He clearly hadn't reckoned with irate parents, never mind irate Albanian parents whose view was blocked. The angry Albanian parent kept this up until the cameraman slunk off to the back & tucked himself apologetically into the side aisle, to record this event for national TV.

The audience was nothing if not appreciative of their little darlings & the skills of the older performers. There was fairly constant applause, gasps, & oohs of admiration. Nevertheless there was also fairly constant activity; people were getting up & moving out of their seats mid performance, mid dance even; the guy behind us spent much of the performance on his mobile phone conducting a conversation in what could hardly be described as 'sotto voce', whilst filming his beloved daughter all the while.
The family in front of us broke open their picnic & started passing the byrek along the row (a pastry style Albanian fast food).

This picture only shows about a quarter of the dancers, & was taken before general mayhem broke out. it also only shows about a fifth of the costumes. The main performers & many of the children had about 5 changes of costumes unbelieveably.

At the end, as the entire troupe took their bows, after the 50-something, now rather plump, former ballerina herself had rather bizarrely performed a little routine with her fellow Italian director, several mums rushed on stage to take closer pictures, or hug their children. All the children started spontaneously chanting 'Moza, Moza' & one very tiny ballerina rushed up to 'Moza' to hug her, round the knees, whereupon pandemonium broke loose & all the little girls rushed up to hug Moza & she disappeared in a cloud of frothy pink & yellow tulle (well more likely nylon actually). Certainly not communist style in that regard, she was quite obviously adored by all her little pupils. And also quite clearly loved what she did, & loved to dance.

And it was even on the Albanian national news the next day. In fact at the market today, I was buying a bag of rocket from my usual supplier & it was the 1st time he had met my children so he was asking about their age & school etc & then he suddenly recognised my son & said he had seen him on TV in the ballet! My son was in all of about 15 minutes of this 2 /12 hr performance though he did have a solo performance, but still amazing he was recognised. Being a boy amidst a swarm of girl ballerinas (& with blonde curly hair in a Balkan/Mediterranean country) he certainly stands out more. He had all the Albanian 13 yr old ballet girls clucking over him & ruffling his hair, so several mums told me. Just as well he has had nearly 5 years of cheek pinching, hair touching & general staring to get used to the attention. Fortunately he takes it in his stride & it doesn't phase him any more. However, being on TV, AND being recognised , as 'the blonde ballet dancer' just chuffed him to bits. Not enough to make him want to continue though, he tells me he is 'hanging up his ballet shoes' for good now.

After all when you have danced on the stage at the National theatre & been on TV where else is there to go?

Monday, June 7, 2010

U befsh nje qind vjec!

That's the traditional Albanian salutation on a birthday - May you live to a 100 years old!
I guess, under the despotic dictator, Enver Hoxha, that was indeed an optimistic wish worth bestowing, as he bumped off so many. On the other hand, I imagine many would have considered this similar to the Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times" as life under Hoxha was so hard, & cruel.

Anyway today is my "ditelindjen". Since living abroad my birthdays have been a bit different from the usual day at work. Last year we went to a local gorge swimming, sunbathing, climbing rocks, all complete with picnic birthday cake. I had never spent a birthday like it!

Tara @ Sticky fingers is away this week, so there's no photo gallery, so I decided to do my own personal gallery of a birthday in the life of an ex-pat.
The gorge. I'm the one in the hat & turquoise rash vest. This year my birthday is a Monday, but as we had a visitor staying from the UK (our 3rd one in 3 weeks) we went back to the gorge yesterday, & out for a meal on Saturday. Being an 'ex-pat' birthday meant we ate outside in a roof terrace restaurant, next to this statue in fact, who kindly looked after our things. And I would just like to add, the rest of the restaurant was surprisingly tasteful, if a bit over the top...Today is the first day of my husband's 2 week long external audit, the most important work event for him of the last 2 1/2 yrs. He spent half the w/e (as well as manic hours this last 2 months), working, despite our visitor, so I was especially grateful to receive one of his, now trademark, hand made cards. Albania has few, if any greetings cards & my husband never has time to shop, & wouldn't know what to do in one anyway, so he has taken to making me cards from internet cartoon sites. Here's last year's offerings:

So this year, whilst I took our friend to the airport to fly home, he & my son made cards, blew up balloons & designed 'certificates' for flat presents. Albania doesn't have much to offer in the way of shops & as I said my husband is not the best shopper, or ideas man, at the best of times, & this is not the best of times for him with work. So I was very touched by the time & effort they put in. These were the results of their efforts this year:

My son's card made me laugh & it was, I realise the first time he's written something funny or made a joke. He suddenly seemed very grown up. I even got a 'flat present' (as we call them) from him. Like father, like son. It was a 'certficate' for a massage "Anywhere in Tirana" I thought he meant from him so I said "You can give me a shoulder massage now."
"No from a shop mum."
"But you don't have enough pocket money for that." I said
"No, but Daddy will pay, I expect." So not quite so grown up then, though quite canny.....

This was my husband's card. Very cool & retro don't you think?!

My daughter's card was a picture of us at the gorge, with a shark in the top left hand corner with its 'arms' in the air shouting 'hooray!' evidently. I never got to the bottom of why there was a shark in our gorge.... Also my daughter is defying gravity (right) & sticking horizontally to a rock next to a giant green frog. She & my 10 y-o collected about 50 tadpoles from the river & brought them home. They are feeding them boiled lettuce & my daughter, I am afraid, will 'imprint' them with too much familiarity as she keeps catching them in her fingers & playing with them. I am watching them avidly. The minute they grow legs they are going straight into the lake by our house. I do NOT want a plague of frogs in our flat (they're on our balcony at the moment in washing tubs) Only Available Exits: over the 3rd floor balcony wall, OR through the flat......

She pointed out her card 'doubles as a present', as it is a 'coloured in card' with pictures on 3 sides. She also said, in discussion today about old age, having babies (I said I'm too old to have more babies) & getting wrinkles when you get old, "But you're old Mummy, & you don't have wrinkles...." I think that doubles as a present too. I think....

And here's two of my presents. One to remind me of my roots, from an old, old friend whom I've known longer than I've not known her. (ie we met when we were 19)

And one from a very good, new friend I've made here, to remind me of my adopted home of Albania & some of the good things about it.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Gallery - Still Life

It's soft fruit season now. Yum yum yum. The strawberries are over already, cherries came in about 10 days ago & now the peaches & apricots have appeared. I never ate apricots in England. They always seemed to have that 'floury' texture & no taste. The peaches often went from hard to mouldy without passing through 'ripe' at any stage. It's one of the things I love about living here; the fruit & veg is Sooooooooo tasty & fairly organic in the sense of little use of pesticides (I do, however, try not to think about the industrial wastes that may still be in the water table from the communist era. Birth defects round the steel factory in Elbasan, run off from the arsenic factory near Lezhe......)

Eating is very 'seasonal' here. It makes for much more anticipation & appreciation as you wait for the first cherries, but can mean winter is rather bleak & 'cabbage' & 'spinach' focused

The new democrat party that took over from the communist party (with quite a few 'converted' communist party members, who had curiously & suddenly 'seen the light', joined the democrats, & what do you know, stayed in power......) introduced a 'Year Zero'. They wanted to start everything afresh. Sadly this meant throwing the baby out with the bath water & the good went along with the bad. This included cutting down most of the countries fruit trees, because of the hated 'forced labour' . However 18 years post communism, they have re-emerged & yummy soft fruits are back on the menu.

Below is how I do a lot of my shopping. Anything to avoid driving in Tirana. A bag on each handlebar - something you were always taught NEVER to do in cycling proficiency courses because it unbalanced you, & a rucksack which goes everywhere with me in case I spot a grocery item not found elsewhere. I tend to have to cobble my shopping together from different shops & parts of the city. The tennis racquet was because I had been playing tennis & went straight out to shop, not because I am training for a circus act.