Monday, March 29, 2010

The 'antivenom'

I know this is very unBritish but I have to share a little praise I received about my children. After last week's hospitality debacle, I was gratified to hear that my children are not like this. You are never quite sure what they are like when your beady eye isn't on them. You just hope that the incessant drilling has paid off..

Last week the cleaner at my children's school saw me chatting to two of the teachers & asked one of them to tell me that she loved my children because they were always so polite, well mannered & helpful to her & other children. I was really touched a.) that she had noticed & b.) had asked one of the teachers to translate this & pass it on to me. (My Albanian doesn't cover vocabulary for politeness, good behaviour etc; haven't found much use for it).

Then on Sunday one of the mums, who takes a turn walking the school children to the ballet lesson my 2 partcipate in, told me how grown up our 9 y-o was becoming & what a gentleman he was, because he had offered to carry stuff for her & help her with her bags.

Also on Sunday it was my daughter's turn, in an unlikely area of model behaviour, to be praised. My daughter's Sunday School teacher came up to me & commented on how beautifully our 5 y-o ate the cup cake she had been given. I couldn't hide my astonishment & 1st established she knew which our daughter was, then asked if she was sure she hadn't licked the icing off the cake, discarded the cake uneaten & then licked her fingers one by one (which is what she does at home if she can get away with it.)

Still I couldn't believe it, 3 times in one week. They say, in customer service, that if you have a good experience you tell 5 people, but if you have a bad experience you tell 12. Well, old data, now my husband tells me but the point is clear. I certainly tell more bad experiences on here than good, which is another reason I felt justified in telling this little story. though it has to be said, too, that the bad experiences often make for the better stories.

AND: I also got my own little bit of recognition from someone whose son I teach. She was telling a friend of mine how lucky her son is to have me teaching him, how much he loves IGCSE English, is feeling really stretched by it, loves the lessons & even enjoys the homework. Honestly it made my day. What am I saying, it made my year. As a teacher I can probably count, almost on the fingers of one hand, how many students have thanked me or written me a note to thank me for getting them through GCSES or A Levels in the course of my teaching career. & I am always pathetically grateful for each one. You get precious little feedback as a teacher, especially from the kids & often wonder if you are having any impact, yet one thank you & you feel it's all worthwhile. My hosting might not have been appreciated last week, but my teaching is, by 1 student at least, which is probably more important.

It's also somewhat daunting & not a little disconcerting that, in this small foreigner fish pond we live in, I teach the school director's son, my doctor's son, my dentist's son, & a fellow teacher's son. It also makes for some surreal scenarios where 2 fellow professionals keep 'swapping places' depending on whether flossing, Fitzgerald or flat feet is the issue at stake.

I remember all too well, growing up in a similar small community situation, more goldfish bowl than fish pond, as my father was vicar of a small country parish with similar professionals in the congregation (one was even my bank manager-horrors!) & relishing the anonymity of going away to uni in a big city. Now here I am back in that scenario again. Oh well, at least I had good practie at it 1st time round.

So all that more than made up for my experience of ingratitude last week.

And finally my picture for Week 5 of The Gallery from Tara@stickyfingers has to be a picture of "Outside your front door" or the immediate environment where you live.

That was easy. This picture epitomises winter at our place in Tirana, Albania. Mud & water. This 'lake' is a semi-permanent feature of life in our road in the wet winters we get here. The drains are blocked, the landlord's bodge job didn't quite work, &, because he couldn't be bothered to dig down, he replaced the sewage pipes above ground, & concreted over them, thus creating a 'dam' effect in our road. Hence the lake. It gets much deeper than this, usually comes a third of the way up my bike wheel, to the point where my foot is in the water on the 'down' pedal. Of course when I say water I mean sewage water...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

House Guest Harangue

Well,'it's official, I feel really old. Funny what triggers such feelings. I've been out of circulation because we've had a house guest staying for 9 days. This was the sort of house guest friends of ours in the foreign office in Tanzania had; i.e “a friend's 2nd cousin's girlfriend's boss” type guest. i.e. Never met them before, don't know them from Adam, but 'you live in a great holiday destination & staying with you would give us free accommodation' type guest. Same scenario (except for the 'great holiday destination' bit).

Actually not quite, but we had an American staying with us for 2 wks in Jan who was coming as an intern to work for my husband, & this unknown house guest was a friend of his, whom he asked if we could put up. We said 'Of course'.

I loved having this intern to stay, though again it made us feel so old. He was very young, born 2 years after I left university, 2 yrs before we got married; a graduate fresh out of college, full of life & enthusiasm, whose favourite word is 'awesome', all of which just made me feel very staid, & rather jaded. So much of our frame of reference was of a time or things before he was even born or had heard of.

The children loved him. Of course they did, he was FUN. He used to have cushion fights with them before school in the mornings, challenge them to matches on the Wii etc. Although he did manage to break our sofa, a candle holder, & knock one of the speakers on the floor during one of the sword fights. He is just a big kid really. No, that's not fair, but he has a lot more 'kid' left in him than I do! That's why I felt old. I own stuff, I know what things cost, I mind (not a lot, but a bit) about mess & breakages, I like to know how many people I am feeding of an evening, I like a bit of order. I realise it's decades since I had a cushion fight, & to be honest I don't really miss it...

The children would throw themselves on him like bouncy puppies greeting their master when he got back from work. He was, though, full of gratitude to us, appreciated my cooking & brought gifts for the children & treated us to a meal out (with complementary babysitting thrown in) A model guest (apart from over exuberant sword fights) & great fun to have around. His friend, however, was not.

I think what got to me was what I will call the “thoguhtless selfishness” of youth. I felt like a hotel, I felt wholly unappreciated & I felt drained from looking after everybody else (whilst running on empty at the moment). In the end I asked her to let me know 'that morning' if I would be feeding 1 or even 2 extra people or not. Her response was “I guess we'll grab dinner with you every day except Tuesday & Wednesday” - Nice expression.

One day I came back from work in the afternoon to find all the breakfast stuff, including milk & butter still out on the table. She hadn't even bothered to clear up before going out. She used my laptop all the time, sometimes asking, sometimes not. She rarely offered to help & did nothing spontaneously to help. Yet she was very sweet & friendly. Just thoughtless. Does thoughtfulness come with age then, I wonder?

I must admit I found it hard to be gracious (inside). To start with, she didn't know us at all, complete strangers offering her food an accommodation for a week. We saved her a ton of money by not staying in a hotel, yet she didn't bring a gift or anything. There were no flowers, no thank you note. Zip. (which wd be fine if she was family, I wouldn't expect it.) I took her on a day trip, I changed arrangements to fit in with her, I fed them lunch some days, when they decided to just hang out at our place. I drove her to the airport. At the airport I said I would take my son off for a drink & told them where we would be. 20 minutes later our American friend came to find us without our house guest. I asked where she was & he said, "Oh she's gone through to departures".


She had left without saying goodbye, without thanking us. She hasn't even emailed since to say thank you.

I couldn't believe it, I was gob-smacked.

Yet somehow I couldn't shake off this feeling that maybe I was just being middle-aged, old fashioned & pernickety. After all we had obviously been happy to have her to stay as we had offered, non? That's why I feel old, young people have a (probably unconscious) knack of making you feel that it's just you, who is out of touch with the way of the world, things have moved on, you are stuck in old habits & being too boring & reactionary about 'stuff'.

Still it's good preparation for the teenage years..... In the meantime though, I am going to continue to drill 5 & 9 y-o in the 'Ps & Qs'. I would hate to have anyone say the same of my children, however old fashioned it might seem.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Paradise Regained A Little

Well, turns out the sun DID come out. Gorgeous wall to wall cloudless blue.
And I have numbered things below which I shall call blessings,because that's what they felt like, small things but the sum of their parts added up to making me feel a bit less fragile.

We went for a walk on Saturday & I took deep draughts of Vitamin D. It felt good. Warm sun on the face, muscles unclenched, bones thawed. Wonderful.

Our P.E teacher friend, who has made our place his second home, asked us to supper on Friday. I was touched. We have people for meals a lot, to make friends, be hospitable. We rarely get asked back.

Then on Saturday the children came into our bed for stories. They started doing this a few wks ago, but before that they hadn't done it for months & months. We thought that little 'season' had passed too. My husband has been reading 'Wind in the Willows' to our daughter & our (now 9 yr old) son comes along because he can never resist a story, whatever it is. We read from an edition illustrated by Inga Moore. My husband's granny's cousin (does that make it his great cousin??) was Ernest Shephard who illustrated the original "Wind in the Willows", so we felt rather guilty betraying the family connection, but Moore's illustrations are just gorgeous.

So there we all were four in bed, husband reading in his soothing narrator voice, stopping every so often to explain what was going on, as the language is complex & the sentences long; passing over to me to explain the longer words, (not his forte & you'd be surprised at the words in the text), our son saying 'come on read the next bit' & our daughter busy playing with my hair & stroking my cheek. For her, stories are about cuddles, she usually tunes out, especially with the difficult language in it. She tries, but she hasn't got the world's greatets attention span.
When we finally finished Dad says, "So what did you think of that 5 y-o?"
She said "It made my brain go all twirly." Oh well, that great classic confined to family posterity as the book that makes children's brains go 'twirly'.

Sunday was "Summer Day" in Albania - a really big holiday & the sunniest day of the year so far. A friend who has lived here over 10 yrs said it is ALWAYS sunny on Summer Day. The 1st day of summer (in theory).
It was also Mother's Day in England. I am always so thankful that 10 yrs on I now AM a mother twice over & can celebrate the fact. My daughter made me a huge cardboard banner saying "I 'heart' u mummy" & my son made me a cross stitch book mark which said "I 'heart u, M". He didn't have time to write more, he said.

His class do cross stitch whilst listening to their class reader which seems quite a soothing idea & gives them something to do. Of course I had to feign amnesia (let's face it, not a trick I find difficult) as only the day before I had had to iron, for my daughter, a random selection of Hamma bead letters an "I", a heart, a 2 "Us" 3 "Ms" , & a "Y" , whilst under strict instructions not to look at what I was doing.

My husband took us all out to lunch. Always a treat.

My sister booked her ticket to come out & visit in May- the 1st member of my family in 4 yrs abroad to come & visit. I realise I don't live in very appealing places so I don't blame them.

My tennis friend phoned & asked if I wd like to play tennis this morning before she goes back to Italy on Wed for more test following her surgery a month ago. It is also good I have time on my hands as it meant I could go out for coffee with her afew wks ago - for 3 hours, after her surgery to talk to her. That to me is a good use of time. She needed a listening ear, I had the time to spend with her.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Paradise feels lost

Sometimes it's hard to pinpoint why one is feeling so depressed, though I do always look for logical explanations. Maybe it's the incessant rain we've had this winter; for days on end it rains. I bike everywhere because parking is a nightmare, so when it rains I don't go out. Or maybe it's that like last yr at almost exactly the same time, we have, again, had a rash of friends falling seriously ill. One good friend has discovered he has an AVM, (after a routine MRI before an ear op), a cerebral arteriovenous malformation (an abnormal mass of veins in the left side of his brain) which could cause a stroke at any time, or could continue having no effect as it has done for the last 46 yrs. Surgery is too risky, radiation treatment takes 5 yrs & is also risky. But now he lives with the Leontes syndrome ("I have drunk & seen the spider"- Winter's Tale) He knows it's there.

Another friend's father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer & a month later he was dead.

The 31 yr old Albanian who tries faithfully to improve my tennis, has got thyroid cancer & is awaiting further tests & prognosis.

All this has the knock on effect of making me once again (though I hardly ever seem to forget it) mindful of the fragility of life; it also makes me feel that here I am alive yet doing so little with my life. I constantly feel I should be 'doing more' I want to be doing more, but what? Especially with the children at school all day now, particularly living amongst so many needs, being more useful would probbaly make me feel better. People alway say, but look at what you're doing, where you live, your life etc, but actually what they mean is my husband. look at what he's doing. I'm just tagging alone behind, being the (not very) supportive wife.

I teach 2 mornings a week. The card project (Mangava), largely runs itself on a weekly basis. I'm more of a non-executive director; the women's group I organise hardly ever meets, because everyone (except me) is too busy. My Albanian teacher is at college this year & has home life complications, so we hardly ever meet either, & my tennis partner is out of action with her health.

Sudddenly it seems the few pegs that I hang the tapestry of my week on, are snapping off one by one (& let's face it there aren't many holding it up in the 1st place) - 2 weekly fixtures & 1 fortnightly fixture disappear & suddenly I have these yawning spaces in my week. And the community I know are all working or are much older than me & leading a 'ladies who lunch' life style which is just not me. Sure I can go running, to the gym, fiddle around sewing, like this I made for my niece, do the washing, shopping, I bake a lot; but all those things are on my own. God seems to have made me gregarious, a people person yet I spend 70% of my time alone I reckon. I STILL have days when I speak to no one till my children get home. And my husband gets home late & is too tired to talk much. Of course my closest friend here is away this wk, which doesn't help, but is a foretaste of what it will be like when she leaves in June.

This feeling of listlessness, & lack of direction or purpose, is exacerbated by the fact that my husband is SO busy & preoccupied & is doing such a worthwhile job, whilst I twiddle my thumbs. I love the job he does & so believe in what he is doing & what his organisation is about, but I stil find it hard, even 4 years on, being the trailing spouse, dealing with loneliness, lack of things to do, people to do them with etc. I want a role! Then there's the compounding effect that when I get really down, I lose motivation & just want to retreat into my shell & not go anywhere or make an effort. I am SO glad for an acquaintance who is a clinical pyschologist who tells me that I'm normal & that being told to 'snap out of it' & just 'get out there & join in' is a.) not that easy & b.) not helpful or necessarily a solution.

The other compounding effect is the sense that my children have really moved into a much more independent phase &, even when they come home from school, are quite happy doing their own thing, not being with me. So I don't even feel as needed by them & that's not my role in the same way anymore either.

Maybe I'm just having 'one of those "Bad Ex-pat Days", or maybe it's my "early menopause" hormones, which are wreaking havoc, or my thyroid. I wish there was a simple answer to why I burst into tears for absolutely no reason, why I feel so lacking in motivation & feel so useless most of the time.

Well, maybe the sun will come out tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Gallery - 4 but how many sticks?

Tara@Stickyfingers recently launched a Photo Gallery idea, which I really like. She gives a prompt each week & you upload a photo according to that prompt, & tell its story. This week's is 'numbers'.

my number is 'four': the four of us meeting these 4 Indian ladies.
The photo was taken whilst on a walk near Kausani in Uttaranchal in the foothills of the Himalayas in 2007. I love the brightly coloured saris, & we were amazed at how easily they walked in them (I've tried, it's not easy) & how perfectly balanced they were with such heavy loads on their heads. This was, of course, all part of a normal day's work in normal 'work clothes'.

We had decided that as living in Sri Lanka was like a watered down version of India, it would be a good opportunity to visit India whilst living in Colombo. Not such a shock. It stil was in some ways, everything was 'more so'. more extreme in every way. Our children were then 3 & 7. We travelled everywhere by train. They took it in their stride. It was an amazing experience.

Sad, but True

Ok so that was a very long post. Sorry. But I think if you started reading you would be hooked by Flutara's story, it's quite amazing what 1 person has been through. Unfortunately she is not even unusual, there are SO many of these sort of stories here in Albania.

That Women's Day post was my 150th post by the way. And it has taken me 3 yrs to get there! and 20 followers, that averages out at 0.6 of a follower per month. Oh dear I wish I hadn't worked that out.....just as well I don't do it for fame, fortune & fanfare. But if there is a semi-follower out there or even a point6 of a follower then please do join me!

I'd better go to the Cybermummy conference & get some hot tips on improving my blog. By the way, I'm going to go out on a limb here, but didn't anyone else think £100 for a day conference rather expensive?? Even £80 the 'discount' rate is a bit steep. Maybe I have just been living abroad too long, maybe that's the 'going rate' for a London based conference, for lunch & some seminars. Maybe the experts are all professionals being paid for their time. I had thought it was going to be a bit more informal with 'blogging mummies' just giving advice from their experience. but actually it looks like it's all about PR & making money from your blog (even though several recent posts keep telling us that's a non starter), marketing yr blog etc. Maybe there will be champagne & wine & take home goodies & that's why it costs that much. Maybe they are not expecting many so it needs to be that price to cover costs.

I mean that's more than a day at The Sanctuary Spa in London. I know of course that people will say "Well, you don't have to go, but the point is, I want to go!"

I also think that MOST people's motivation for going will be because they want to meet other bloggers, the ones they have been reading & 'met' in cyber space.

Maybe I'm just too much of an 'old style blogger' & of course my little unzooted up, low traffic blog is evidence of that.

But I felt like the child in 'The Emperor's New Clothes' who pointed the finger & said "the king's got no clothes on!" when I went to the discussion on the British Mummy Bloggers website & everyone was so excited about it. Only 2 commenters, that I could see, said "Wow, I need to find out more before I commit £100 to this" or "I will do all I can to scrape the money together", which I thought were more normal reactions.

After all isn't the point that we are, by definition, Mummy Bloggers, ie not working or working that much, whereas the price reflects more of a professional market I would say.

Well clearly someone is making money out of blogging.

Tell me what you think, & please correct me if I'm wrong. I would like to know what I am misunderstanding.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Women's Day

It's International Women's Day today, observed particualrly in Russia & Eastern Europe. It originated as a socialist political day but now it's just a commercial mish mash, in Albania, of Mother's Day & Valentine's day. Historically yellow Mimosa (in flower for the last month) & chocolates were given, but sadly even that has mostly given way to the ubiquitous entrepreneurs selling red carnations in buckets by the roadside.

You get given a single flower in larger shops, even in some restaurants sometimes. It's quite nice, even though I always find it slightly ironic, as this is such a patriarchal, and macho society, one in which women are still subjugated & subservient. Attitudes are beginnning to change, a bit. Slowly. In Tirana at least.

Women do all the work in the house, mothers, & daughters , that is, not sons, or fathers. The women all work too & grandparents look after the small children. Sons are indulged, spoilt, favoured. No wonder many grow up so arrogant, thinking the world belongs to them, & often treat women badly, certainly not as equals. I have several Albanian friends who says they wont marry an Albanian male because of the way they know they will be treated & the workload they will have to bear. Even in schools, the male students often get preferential treatment to the girls, & their errant behaviour is certainly indulged.

In my husband's organisation they find it very hard to find high calibre male employees. Statistically the women do much better at school & university. Cafes are full of men drinking coffee, the park is full of men playing backgammon & chess, young guys cruise around in their stolen cars. The women are at home cleaning, cooking or out at work. Probably working 2, even 3 jobs to make ends meet. It's one of the 1st things I noticed here; how masculine the 'streets' were,

Anyway on this Women's Day I wanted to tell you the story of a woman I know who is an inspiration & testimony of perseverance & courage.

My friend, I'll call her Flutara, is 35 yrs old. She excelled at school, & so applied to go to Shkoder university 2 hrs from Tirana. Her brother forbade her to go (brothers can do that here). He said "You can't go, your mother needs you to look after her". (He was living at home, I hasten to add)
This was the same mother, who all her life had told, Flutara she was 'a curse' to her, being a late & unexpected addition to the family. So Flutara gave up her uni place. A bit later she decided to apply to do nursing, locally, so she could live at home. She won a scholarship - a fully paid place. Unfortunately this meant that a lot of people coveted that place, so it was susceptible to bribes. Her name was removed from the list & someone else's replaced it. Someone who 'paid' for the scholarship place. The first she knew of it was when she was told her name was not on the list. She had no place.

So she has worked various jobs, nursed her mother & having largely taught herself English she teaches it to Albanians. She also teaches Albanian. To me. She is limited on what jobs she can do because she has no higher qualifications.

Another of her talents is her voice. It is really amazing. So much so that two foreigners sponsored her to go to the conservatory to be trained. She went for 6 months, but gradually her voice got worse & worse & she was advised finally by her theory teacher to leave before her voice was ruined for good. Her Singing Teacher was the 'number 1' in Tirana. She told Flutara, "You could be Number 1 with your voice, but you will never be, because I am number 1."

She had set out systematically to destroy Flutara's voice, & her theory teacher, also a friend, warned the young, then naive, Flutara to leave, as this jealous woman had done this before to other promising singers. She had also auditoned for a place in a concert directed by a visiting Italian, who loved her voice. However, her singing teacher told him that because Flutara was not a member of the conservatory but only taking private lessons, she could not be picked (not true of course)

A saving grace is that she is married to a very good man. When she was pregant with their 1st child she explained she wdn't be abble to bake the bread she always made, so Genti asked her to teach him & said he would do it. All well & good. Until his mother arrived to see the new addition. Genti answered the door in a pinny with his hands covered in flour, whereupon, his mother, without uttering a word, turned on her heels & left. She later said how he had brought shame on their family & dishonoured the name of man by turning himself into a woman! And she refused to come & visit them. (So I guess that was a good outcome...) Needless to say they are choosing to bring up their 2 boys in a very un-Albanian way.

Flutara & her family now live with her mother-in-law. Usual story of moving to Tirana to look for work so living with relatives. They also live with her husband's brother. Three generations, in a 3 bed apartment, is very normal here. Flutara, her husband & 2 boys all sahre 1 room, & 1 bed. It's probably one of the reasons domestic violence is so high here in Albania. Flutara gets up at 4 or 5 a.m most mornings so she can use the shower before the men, who have 1st refusal. And also because the hot water runs out. Her mother-in-law tells her she uses too much water & electricty, & has taken to hiding behind the bathroom door & pouncing on her. She also calls her all the names under the sun & has recently begun physically threatening her. On one occason Flutara turned up for our lesson with a badly cut hand & wrist. She had put her arms up to defend herself & managed to put her hand through a glass pane. The MIL never does any of this when Flutara's husband is there. And of course denies it. But they are powerless, they have no where to go. They live in a condemned apartment in an old communist block, with holes in the roof & walls, exposing the outside air (& rain) & the owner wants to knock it down & build a new high rent one. So they will be offered another apartment, elsewhere, almost always smaller & no choice in it. The one they have been offered, they are worried about because it's near a hillside of loose clay & building rubble/waste which they fear may slip, much like the recent mudslide in Italy. So a Hobson's choice really.

When Flutara was 7, something happened which cemented her family'spoverty. Her father was asked to sign some legal documents by his brother. He couldn't read & didn't know what he was signing. Flutara, who could read, very well, remembers being ushered out of the room & not being allowed to listen or see. It turned out her uncle had got his brother (Flutara's father) to sign his piece of land over to him, leaving him with nothing. This brother is now very rich & prosperous, & uttterly unrepentant.

One bit of good news is that she is studying for a theology diploma which the director, whom she knows, has kindly allowed her to do for free. and she is thriving on the studying. She is doing something for her, without being thwarted. No wonder it feels good.

She is one of the most joyful, bright, amusing & feisty women I have met in Albania. She is not bitter, even though she has had enough exigencies for a lifetime of resentment. She sings constantly in her powerful voice, she is dogged & fights on, believing in a better day. She is, for me, a remarkable example of womanhood, someone who has faced injustice upon injstice, crushed dreams, shattered aspirations, cruel actions, & hurtful words. Not to mention grinding urban poverty. I love her to bits & feel so privileged to know her.

So here's to Flutara & all the women round the world who press on in horrendous circumstances, whilst maintaining their dignity & doing the best they can, against the odds.

I hope one day I can write a sequel with a happy ending.