Sunday, February 28, 2010

Stereotyping For Beginners...

We were commenting on how much more relaxing it was driving in Monte Negro; nobody honked their horn, nobody pulled straight out into our path from a side road, everybody queued politely rather than zooming to the front of any queue of cars, nobody performed death wish overtakes, did a u-turn on a dual carriageway, drove the wrong way up one way streets. It felt odd. We let our guard down.

Within 5 minutes of crossing the border back into Albania a car had pulled out of a side road, without looking, slowing down, or stopping, causing us to brake suddenly, a man in a wheel chair-bicycle contraption pedalling along the side of the road, swerved suddenly across our path in the road without looking behind him, or indicating as we were about to pass him. Didn't he hear our very noisy old banger? Within half an hour, we had nearly run over 3 street dogs, had 2 bikes cycling towards us on the wrong side of the road, a woman walking down the middle of the road, ON A ROUNDABOUT, and a car overtaking another with far too little space driving straight towards us. As for the roadworks, well cars just drove where they liked, there was no filtering etc, so we had cars coming towards us on our side of the road because the oncoming vehicles had decided we were on the 'made up' side of the rd which looked much better (& therefore faster probably). And a guy drove towards us up the hard shoulder.

Welcome back. It certainly wakes you up.

I know one is supposed to say 'not wrong just different' & I applaud Iota for managing to do this so magnanimously so often. I try, but there are some things which just don't wash. Frankly the driving in Albania is appalling. All our visitors comment on it, the accident rate is horrendous, the police enforce precious little, & many are afraid to drive here.

When we were skiing yesterday there were quite a few weekend visitors & we noticed groups of typically 8 to 10 mainly lads, who made me very nervous. Our 5 y-o had just learned this week & was doing very well, but Saturday was so much busier & these groups tended to be not very good skiers & not, let's say, very in control. (For the anxious grandparents reading this, we deliberately took the very old, very slow lift up to another part of the mountain & had runs almost entirely to ourselves.)

They tended to go way too fast, cut you up, not leave enough room for safety when overtaking, do a lot of macho posturing, have no consideration for other piste users, no cognisance of 'consequences' or realisation that skiing could be a dangerous acitvity & all in all quite selfish. It seemed very familiar. Where had I seen this sort of behaviour elsewhere? I stopped near these groups when I could, & without fail, yes, dear reader, I heard Albanian.

They skiied just like they drove.

So I started wondering whether this was a national characteristic, or was it that Albania has a very macho culture which skiing & driving lend themselves to being performed in a macho way?

When skiing in Canada, people were unfailingly courteous, careful skiers & gave lots of space & were solicitous if someone had a problem. I guess this is because the prevailing culture is a litigious one so everyone skiied considerately (even if the ulterior motive was to stay law-suit free) Maybe that is unfair, & as a nation, Canada is courteous & considerate to others, I don't know. I will ask my sister what she thinks, she lived there for 7 yrs.....

I have skiied in some countries in Europe where the queuing is non-existent, the locals pushed & shoved, but I'm not naming names.

It's hard to resist national stereotyping. People are happy to do it, it seems when it's to say 'the Italians are so extrovert', 'West Indians so laid back & easy going', 'Germans are so efficient', 'Aussies have a great sense of humour'. It's more acceptable when it's a positive I guess, but not so politically correct when it's negatives. Despite, obviously, being generalisations, can there be truth in them? How does a nation develop 'national characteristics?

They are always so much easier to see as the outsider looking in I think, but maybe that's just our effort to pigeon hole & reinforce one's identity in an alien land.
I wonder what foreigners who go & live in the UK say about British national characteristics? Would it be all the 'obvious' ones we Brits see ourselves? Reserved? Stiff upper lipped? Moaners? Obsessed with weather? Masters of understatement & irony? Expert queue-ers?

Or would there be some googlies in there that we wouldn't have identified ourselves?

And do they change with time? Could we still be described as 'tolerant', 'on the side of the underdog', 'stoic', in a country which has become very foreigner-fatigued/potential terrorist-wary, stressed, road-raged, me-centred, 'I want it now' & go-getting?

What do you think?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gone Fishing......

Or some other such cyber sign to say we are 'on holiday'. Actually we've gone skiing. For 4 days.

Take two. After our mildest Macedonian week in 60 yrs with NO SNOW, we decided to try another Balkan country beginning with M - Monte Negro (where the men are all incrdeibly tall. Taller than my 6ft 3 husband) Now how does that happen? How does a whole nation get tall??

So we drove for 5 hrs through non stop rain (it's been the wettest winter ever in Albania too) into Monte Negro where it continued to rain. My husband's mutterings grew louder as we progressed. Let's just say he was 'not a happy bunny'. He is in fact a 'ski bunny' (if men can be such things) Mad as mad can be about it. So things were not looking good.

Was this to be our second wash out ski trip? In the year when everyone everywhere had excessive snow except the Balkan elbow of Europe?

The Good News: by the time we got to 1450m there was snow, & the tiny resort was operating (ie half the lifts were open, that wd be 3 then, 1 of which is the pull rope for baby skiers......) We got the wettest I have ever got skiing. We skiied in rain which was a 1st for me. At the top it turned into snow.

More Good News: the restaurant serves those really thick hot chocolates which are like mousse, ubiquitous in Albania & the children love them.

Other Good News: the resort had been developed & had one of those zooty tooty 6 seater zippy chairlifts which whisk you up in minimal time & eliminate the usual Balkan frostbite hazard. We felt almost "European" (in an almost Val d'Isere kind of way. Only not quite)....

Bad News: it's the law in Monte Negro always to drive with your lights on . All the time. Guess who left the lights on all day, resulting in flat battery (as we discovered back at our car wet through & very cold?) No, not me, my husband. Suffice to say I was not a happy bunny.

Good News: We had jump leads under our seat & an empty, rather lost looking coach still in the car park for some reason, (as we were the last punters to leave the ski resort), attempted to jump start us to no avail.

Best news of all: the only other car in the car park was a Lada. The guy arrived with a cable & hooked our heavy tank of a 4x4 to his little Lada & pulled us across the car park & we successfuly bump started it.

Resolution. I will never be rude about Ladas again. I will endeavour not to be rude about my husband's absent-mindedness. After all he was VERY excited to see the snow....

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ex-Pat Exodus

I guess I have lived here long enough now for me to be moving into the 'old timer' category as we embark on our 3rd year here (5th overseas), but more importantly for people to be leaving & for me, suddenly, to be the one left behind.

I wasn't in Sri Lanka long enough for it to begin happening there really. So this is a New Experience for me.

I remember a friend back home in Oxford saying that it was actually quite hard to be the one left behind doing the 'same old, same old', whilst her friends were 'moving on' to exciting things & new pastures. At the time of course I didn't see it like that. I didn't want to 'move on'. I saw her as the lucky one, still cocooned in her community, with friends close by, still in the town, house, job she loved. Unlike me.

Now I begin to understand, not actually because I envy people moving on to 'more exciting' things, or feel that I want to myself; more that I am left behind as friends move on to pastures new. I have begun to feel that old insecurity & lack of confidence again which come from being in a new place, having to start all over again, make friends, put down roots, learn the ropes. It has some of the characteristics of the 'transition' phase of entering a new culture again. Except I haven't even gone anywhere this time.

In this case it's the vulnerability of relying on a few friends in a small community & the wearying nature of having to rally oneself & 'get out there' & make the effort once again to make new friends, & engage with new people in the struggle to establish a new network. Just when I was hoping to rest on my laurels & nestle into something akin to a comfort zone. Bam, my friends up sticks & decide to move.

First there was an Albanian friend who left in Oct, having accrued enough 'points' to enable him to work in Canada. Then at Christmas there was a couple who we knew well. I helped her with the Mangava card project & I now oversee it, (which is a big challenge for my Albanian). In June our bachelor P.E teacher friend leaves, & the family with whom we do most, whose children get on so well with ours, may now be leaving in June too (after 6 ½ yrs here) pending a potential job offer back in the U.K.

That's all 4 of the guys my husband mountain bikes with, & it's both my main girl friends here.

It's at times like this, though, that I feel most sorry for ex pats, married to Albanians. (NOT because they have no 'get out clause' like me, although I DO think that too sometimes, on bad days)

But because this is their home & yet they usually do, inevitably gravitate towards other foreigners, particularly those from their 'homeland'. Others I know deliberately keep a distance to some extent & try & integrate more fully into the Albanian community knowing the inevitability of the foreign friends' departure at some point & the pain that goes with it. I couldn't cope with that. I know you can enjoy those friends 'for the moment' but I'm the sort of person who enjoys, & has, close, long term, 20 yr old friendships. There is something irreplaceable about the familiarity, acceptance & 'pick up where you left off' nature of old friends. I miss it.

I guess I'm also quite picky & I have found it hard adapting to 'circumstantial' friends. Somehow it seems a bit false & a bit pointless hanging out with people because you need a social network even though you have little in common. I do try & be welcoming, have people for meals etc even though it's a draining process, but it's the soul mates, kindred spirits, old, old friends I miss. On the plus side I have made unexpected friendships & gained valuable lessons from these experiences.

I have been reading 'Third Culture Kids', that seminal work by Dave Pollack. Leave taking & expressing grief, are all part of a 'global nomad's life experience. Pollack states that for TCKs, 'The collection of significant losses & separations before the end of adolescence is often more than most people experience in a lifetime'. He says that Third Culture Kids (TCKs) can develop a pattern of fear of intimacy, or protecting themselves from further pain & from further goodbyes by not allowing people to get very close. This often continues into adulthood (ATCKs) & can affect all relationships & marriages too. Of course, on the plus side, they are very good at getting into friendships very quickly & are confident socially because they have had so much practice & had to get stuck in to make friends. I see this positive trait in my children already. I just hope they can avoid the negative ones, which let's face it are quite significant & potentially impacting. For me I just find, increasingly, that it all feels like such a huge effort & one I know I will have to repeat again & again & again, as long as we are living this lifestyle. And I'm fed up with it, yet at the same time, I hate loneliness too & need to feel I belong to a social network. So I guess I will keep trying.

At least reading the book (which is equally applicable to adults, like me, leading highly mobile lives) makes me realise I'm normal &helps identify the stages of Involvement, Leaving, Transition, Entering, Re-involvement. & helps me recognise the typical reactions that go with these stages. It really is helpful to know one isn't utterly pathetic, or even merely hormonal (for a change) but that I am exhibiting normal psychological phenomena. Hooray for them.

Many people spend most of their lives in the 'Involvement stage' where life is 'normal', we are comfortable, we fit in, we recognize we are an intimate part of our community, we are familiar with & follow traditions & local customs, we are confident of our valued membership of & position in this society. We are probably focused, primarily, on the present & our immediate relationships, rather than worrying about the past or the future. It is also a comfortable stage for those around us because they know our reputation, history, talents, tastes, interests & our place in the social network.

You may not even realise half of this, because it's so normal. Until you leave, move somewhere new, or even to another country.

Meanwhile though I still have my cyber community to enjoy. This has been a lifeline to me & has provided invaluable support & people to talk to, especially those in similar situations who have time to write & chat, unlike many of our busy friends back home. And some have become virtually, real friends, people whom I hope to meet up with at the Cybermummy conference in London in July. So thank you to those that read my blog, have offered encouragement, made kind comments & emailed too. it means a lot.

I wonder if anyone has written about the positive & negative impacts of cyberpals on the integration of an ex pat into her new 'real' community..........?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Secret Admirers & Snowy Mountains

It seems that whenever there's a special day I want to write about I have a power cut or no internet & so I miss the day. This happened to me at Thanksgiving, New Year & now Valentine's Day. And the moment is lost. But I wanted to write about it so I am going to!

As I wrote last year, Valentine's Day is a big deal here, borrowed from the Americans. It was a rite of passage year for my son though, no longer sending a card to all his friends in the class but sending just one to a girl he is good friends with & also wants to marry (coincidentally the sister of the boy my daughter wants to marry.) Well, I did say it was a small claustrophobic community here.

He made a card for her & wrote the following rhyme in it.

Roses are red, violets are blue,

If I say I like you,

Will you say so too?

What it lacks in finesse, it makes up for with its heartfelt 'playground negotiation' style I felt. Obviously feeling somewhat emboldened, he then touchingly asked my advice, saying

“I want to say something else but I don't know how to 'kick it off.” He settled for soul bearing honesty:

“I think you are very nice & very beautiful too”


Your SECRET Admirer.

He then gave it to her by hand... ?? I guess the cultural mix of American friendship cards & British anonymous Valentine's to one person, or a signed one to your 'significant other' got lost in translation somewhere along the line, & our son inadvertently devised a cultural mish mash of all of them. Fortunately for him, the feeling seems to be mutual & they have a lovely relaxed friendship. He seemed more worried about what his dad might think than the girl in question. He showed me the finished article but then said

“I don't think I'll show Daddy because he'll just tease me.”

Our daughter gave us a each a piece of paper torn out of a notebook in a used envelope (top marks for recycling) saying “Dear Mummy I love you very much. Love” & then she signed it with both her 1st & last name, in case I was in any doubt. She is at the stage where she is just taking off with writing & reading, so loves to get her brother to write & she copies. I got a random one very early one Saturday morning. I woke to my daughter standing over me saying 'This is for you'. It said:

Dear Mummy

I am sorry for being naughty, please forgive me'.

Which immediately made me somewhat suspicious but it turned out to be just catch all for past (& future) misdemeanours.

My husband made me a card which I got on the 14th this year & then I spent he day buying a cannister & some diesel for the generator so we can use it when the landlord (frequently) runs out of fuel, making tea for my husband & our muddy biker friends & watching a game of rugby & then rustled up supper for our bachelor friend who finally left at 10.30p.m . Just as well I'm not the romantic type.........

Valentine's Day is very big here too for some reason. In the park on Sunday there were lots more Roma out begging than usual, lots of informal cardboard box stalls selling things, a man with a huge python & a polaroid camera getting couples to pose with it draped round their neck. Fortunately the dancing bear wasn't there. It's at times like this that you realise what a developing country it is just below the surface.

Last year we spent Valentine's Day trying to get up Mt Djati, a local attraction with, amazingly, a cable car built by the Austrians. It took an hour to get there (20 min journey) & was heaving as about 50 people crowded round the one open kiosk. I joined the fray noticing very quickly that a.) I was the only woman in the queue & b.) the queue wasn't moving at all. A very Albanian phenomenon was happening whereby complete strangers wave money over your head , shouting all the while & the stranger at the front accepts the cash from myriad different people & buys their tickets for them, then passes them back over your head complete with change. I never know how this is worked out. Net result though- you never get any nearer the front.

At one point this 'very helpful' man at the front finally left with his tickets & the men all round me just put their shoulder down & heaved. For all they were worth. I felt like I was going to be swept off my feet. But not in a good way you understand. So I pushed back, the other way & made a bid for freedom. I had lasted 15minutes. My husband said he would take over. I am pleased to report he realised how awful it was & lasted 2 mins before giving up.

This year, the day after Valentine's Day, a school holiday, the cable car was closed so I drove the children up. They were desperate to see some snow. The guy at the park gates near the top of the mountain said ''a bit of a problem, not much though'. There was snow down the centre of the road & loads piled up on the sides. As we continued it got worse, thicker but also slushier. And the road got narrower. The worst thing though was that we kept meeting cars coming down. Because I was in a 4x4 all the Albanians mostly in 2 WD, wanted me to pull off the very narrow rd to let them pass. (Or maybe it was because I was a woman, it's hard to tell in Albania.) I got stuck 3 times, skidded many times. I wasn't gripping in 4WD at all. I knew it wd take me hours to put the snow chains on & I had never done it before. It took my husband 45 minutes (with assistance, & lots of advice, from the 2 guys we were with that time.)

I met a couple of Albanian lads on a moped who said it was another 4 km & added nonchalantly (with the confidence of someone on their way back down), that it was fine, no problem. It got thicker & thicker & every time I pulled off the rd I wheel spun & got stuck in thick snow. Eventually I said to the children I was going to turn round as soon as I found a turning space on the mountain side & not on the cliff side. I was obviously not managing to conceal my considerable anxiety about getting stuck or skidding as my daughter started wailing “Mummy I don't want to die.” She is, however, known for her drama queen tendencies. Whereupon her brother told her not to be silly we weren't going to. I appreciated his faith in the situation. It was more than I had.

We turned round, & further down (this being the small claustrophobic community remember?) we met 2 teacher friends & their Albanian friends who had also abandoned their attempt & were building snow men. I was shaking like a leaf.

Mt Djati had eluded us once more.

Post script. I discovered from my husband (& not from any of my friends I'd met on the mountain), that you have to turn something on the actual wheels, not just use the 4WD gear stick, so I hadn't actually been in four wheel drive at all. Ho hum.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Glitzy Shopping Mall Debut

The economy in Albania doesn't make sense. Well the 'grey' economy & the black market do but by any normal, legal yard stick it doesn't add up.
Macedonia is like 'old Yupgoslavia' with Ladas & battered Yugos, a rural economy, simple lifestyles etc. Skopje, the capital is small, low rise & makes Tirana look glitzy & exotic. Albania is not like this, not in the capital especially (it's still incredibly poor in the rural areas), even though unemployment is high & salaries are low. Our cleaner earns 40p lek an hr from her washing up job ($150 a mth for 8 hrs a day SEVEN nights a wk. No sick pay, no annual leave)She does 3 cleaning jobs on top of this.

One of the 1st things we noticed in Albania was the cars people drive. Amazing cars: Hummers, huge SUVs, Mercs, Beamers, Chryslers. All brand spanking new, lots with foreign number plates, & lots with no number plates. There is an insurance scam going on.. They get stolen in Germany (often) or wherever, by arrangement. The owner gets, say, half or less, of the value of the car from the 'thief', then once they have been phoned to say the car is safely over the border, you declare it stolen & claim on the insurance. The police never pursue them. Win-win, as they say. It's a cinch to bribe the car through the border.

Another way of doing it, more common in Italy, is a threat/note gets left on a fancy new car 'advising' you to leave the documents & the keys in the car or await the consequences. Statistics suggets 90% of Mercs in Albania are stolen & in fact all the high end cars. These are the very top of the top of the range cars (more often than not driven by 20 yr olds in baseball caps cruising around during the day. You can just 'order' whatever car you want basically. Stolen to order.

Then there is the issue of all the shops, spas, clubs, petrol stations, hotels even that never have anyone in them, yet never close down. Mysterious.

There are over 100 petrol stations between Tirana & Lezhe (a 1 hr drive) in a country of only 4 million people & even fewer cars. Clearly it's not 'need'. It doesn't add up.

I got treated to a pedicure by a friend & we went together to a sumptuous spa, no expense spared in the place, but very reasonable prices. It was empty. 6 months later we went back, for a facial this time, & they recognised us, & even remembered what we had had the previous occasion. Again it was completely empty. I know we are in the minority, being foreigners here, but I'm sorry a busy spa would not remember us from a visit 6 mths before, our feet just aren't that memorable, unless of course, hardly anyone had been in the interim. Yet it manages to survive as a business.

My husband stayed in a very smart (but still very reasonably priced) hotel on the edge of Elbasan on a field trip recently. A huge flat screen tv in every room, but only 2 cards to activate the digibox (1 of which was for the restaurant t.v) Clearly not expecting too many guest s at onc e then,.

he & his colleagues went down for breakfast the next morning, only to be told there was no breakfast because the chef didn't get there till late morning.........

So you see the hotel owner can say to the tax man, "Oh that million in my account? Yes, well you see I own a very smart hotel in Elbasan, full every night, very expensive to stay there, so the money comes from there." Money laundering. I never really understood how it worked before. I've become something of an expert. In terms of exposure to it anyway.

The head of a chain of petrol stations personally paid $2.5 million recently to Real Madrid (yes the 'real' Real Madrid) to come & play Li'l Old Albania at football, in Tirana. Now where does he get that kind of disposeable income from? (Incidentally, there was a power cut at half time, lasted 90 minutes. Energy Minister got sacked for that. Still it would have given Real Madrid a taste of Real Tirana.

So with a degree of curiosity more than expectation, I decided to visit Albania's latest economic anomoly: the new 'Citipark' shopping mall that everyone is abuzz about in Tirana. It is extraordinary; a HUGE out of town glitzy mall, the like of which you certainly wouldn't get in Britain, but would be more suited to Abu Dhabi or Singapore airport.

It had marble floors, waterfalls cascading down the height of 3 floors, t.v screens the size of double decker buses, & on the top floor an ice rink.
The shops are almost entirely designer labels, & all high end retail. The shops were mostly out of my league, as a foreigner, so who in Albania would shop there? Most Albanians shop in the 2nd hand markets & street stalls. And who would stump up the vast amount of investment to construct such a white elephant?

There's a Versace Furniture shop. I mean, here we have a shop called Jysk (a poor quality Scandinavian relation to Ikea) which is out of the reach of most Albanians, so Versace? to add a bit of class to one's communist era apartment block.....

Outside there were two enormous eagles with spread wings crouching (somewhat menacingly I felt)at the entrance. What I didn't realise was that two sides of the mall had identical entrances, identical eagles & identical exit arches with 'Citipark' signs.

So I emerged to find no car where I had left it, & was convinced that someone had stolen it, yet utterly non-plussed as to why, in this country where stealing a $100,000 car from abroad is as easy as ordering a pizza, anyone in their right minds (or even wrong minds) would want to steal our 16 yr old decrepit banger.

There are no maps/floor plans in the Mall. So you have to work your way around identical forecourts of escalators & mosaic floor patterns. In fact Albania doesn't go in for maps in general. The only road map is German, & , though improving, Albania has few road names or road signs.

I guess I'm not used to these sort of places anymore. I have travelled all over the world & been to all sorts of places, but I was initially confused by this place. Turns out, of course, I had emerged into a different (but exactly the same) car park.

It was quite a strange experience wandering around this shopping centre. Groups of mainly young lads or girls wandered round empty handed, just staring. I have seen this in other countries too where the poor come to spectate & peer in awe into this glitzy rich world (which actually is another world to me too) I went to the supermarket in there (the only place I knew I could afford) & felt how I imagined the Queen feels when she goes shopping & they close the store for her. I was one of only 3 people in there (admittedly it gets much busier at the wk ends. This was a wk day) There were rows & rows of immaculate fruit & veg, regimented loaves, perishable goods that I felt sure would have to be thrown away. No one goes out there to food shop, they do that at their local shop & fruit & veg stall. I don't know how it will sustain itself. Except it will of course, mysteriously.

The shop assistants fell into two categories. They either completely ignored you (not so much as a 'good morning' which is very un-Albanian) & continued to loll idly, but elegantly, over the counter, knowing full well that you, along with 99.9% of the people had no money, or intention of buying anything so why bother; OR they could scarcely resist the urge to physically pounce on you in their eagerness for some interaction, (let's face it, I've worked in a shop & it's mind numbing at the best of times, but so much better with customers & something to DO. Both were a bit intimidating.

So , of course, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that it's a Mafia Mall, for the discerning Godfather & fashion conscious Mafioso. Sometimes it feels like a mad, mad world, here in Albania.