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.