Monday, May 23, 2011


I should have said in my last post that one of the reasons I found those lessons hard to learn is because I am, in Myers Briggs terminology, an extrovert. (ENFJ if you want the whole thing.) 'Extrovert' & 'introvert' doesn't mean lively versus shy. It means you get your energy from people & feel buoyed up by a party or gathering or conversation. Introverts are drained by people.

So, I love friends dropping by unannounced (or announced). I like cooking for lots of people, having people to stay, talking, interacting, generally being around people. This is one of the reasons I found moving abroad so difficult, dealing with the initial loneliness, lack of interaction, lack of human contact sometimes. Being stuck at home, with a small child, in an alien environment, without toddler groups & without a very large ex-pat community, didn't make life easy for an ENFJ bod like me. The getting started bit is never easy. The language barrier was a significant hurdle, and the culture shock effect meant I felt so tired & drained by the culture, my lack of understanding of its ways that my normal desire to 'get out there' & meet people was quashed. Bit of a Catch 22 then..

I also found the transition hard because in the UK I lived somewhere with friends walking distance away, we had regular contact with friends, & living very near the M40 Oxford junction, people passing through would call & ask to drop in. I just love that. Of course as people get older, busier & more tied up with work & families, people don't just drop by the way they do when at university, when they are wafting between coffee bar, lecture & doing their laundry.

However, we picked a good country for our second move. Albania excels at hospitality. People make you feel so welcome. The guest is honoured above all else in the old Kanun code. A host was duty bound to protect you with his life. Nowadays the treatment still makes you feel like a VIP even if they don't quite take a bullet for you. Even in small ways they make you feel so welcome & help you out, such as when we arrived at our rooms by the beach last summer; we couldn't find the owner, so the family in the room along from us invited us to sit down & join them for lunch. The raki (plum/grape brandy) was immediately cracked open & offered to my husband, we were urged to share their fruit, byrek, cheese & bread & baklava. We had in fact just eaten our picnic lunch, but they wouldn't take no for an answer!

On another occasion my husband got a flat tyre & had to walk 45 minutes across the city in the midday summer sun to reach the 'bike shop road'. The guys, who only charged $3 for a new inner tube & nothing for labour, offered him a glass of cold water, then one of them went out to get him a chilled fruit juice from a shop. They then shared their bread & lamb with him which they were roasting over a little stove. My husband found it a truly humbling experience. These men, who mend bikes there, are pretty poor & had so little, yet shared what they had with him, simply because he was hot & had arrived at their lunch time.

But the piece de resistance was when some very long suffering shepherds in the middle of nowhere took pity on my husband & 4 fellow mountain bikers whose 'map memory' of Google Earth had failed them & they ended up not so much lost, as without a path to follow, the wrong side of a massive lake, in the dark, in a thunderstorm.....

Albania has very few maps. Well they have old Russian military maps but (still) no one is officially allowed access to them & they are indeed very hard to get hold of. There are no marked paths, certainly no mountain rescue, route markers of any sort, only sheep & goat paths which may (or may not) lead anywhere. On this occasion, a p.e teacher was taking 3 teenagers biking with my husband who just tagged along, not knowing that the route had not been examined that carefully on Google Earth. Had this been done, they would have discovered steep cliffs on one side & no discernible path on the other, or that the lake was enormous.

They set off at 7.30 a.m & reached the top of the gorge at 10.30. As it was still early they decided to carry on & see if they could get round the lake & link up with the next gorge over. 5 hours later they decided they couldn't go back & that it would be quicker to continue. The path was so muddy & steep at times that my husband ended up carrying all 5 bikes (one at a time) as he was the only one with cleats on his shoes so he could grip. Even so he slipped down the slope & plopped straight into the lake at one point, bike & all.

Then it began to rain. Then it began to thunder. It was also getting dark. They had had only a few snacks all day & it was by now 8.30p.m. I hadn't heard from my husband since 2.30. His phone had succumbed to mud & died. They then came upon 2 shepherd's cottages. The shepherds were adamant there was no way round the lake & that the only way out was by boat. They didn't know the name of where they were living & there were no roads at all. They offered to put the bikers up for the night & row them back across the lake the next morning. They insisted on washing the guys' feet, gave them all a supper of bread, yoghurt, sheep's cheese & some fruit & made up beds for them by the fire in the 2 roomed cottage. He took them along the corridor of the unfinished upstairs & opened a door at the end into thin air & via gesticulation indicated that that was their bathroom. They just opened the door & 'went'. If they needed to do anything else he told them to find a bush outside......

Sure enough at 6a.m the next morning, the shepherd rowed the guys across the lake to the next gorge & the welcoming committee of the International School's director (who was translating for them by phone & trying to ascertain exactly where they were), a doctor from the international clinic (his son was on the trip) the teacher-parent of another of the lads & another teacher on a motor bike who knew the area very well. Needless to say this ensured that this story has gone down in Tirana history in the ex pat community, though for what reasons I would not like to hazard a guess. My husband is still greeted with 'I heard a story about you the other day' & he knows invariably which story it is. They all thought it was a grand adventure; wives, girlfriends & mothers were slightly less impressed. I did ask why, when the route was SO non-existent they kept going. The answer? To quote Macbeth they were "stepped in so far, returning were as tedious as go o'er" They assumed it had to get easier & because the return journey would be at least 4 hours back, it would be quicker to continue....

My husband was due to fly to Georgia that same morning, so he had a narrow escape. He got home & washed, while I packed his stuff, fed him brunch & drove him to the airport for his 11.30 flight.

When you look at the google earth image, there is NO civilisation that side of the lake at all. Only a few stone folds & a few cottages nearer the beginning of the route. My son thought they must have been heavily disguised angels looking after his dad. I think they were typical hospitable Albanians who would never turn away someone in trouble.

We're going camping by this lake this weekend, so wish us luck. However at least we will be carrying our own accommodation & I'll be navigating....

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Hurry hurry

It's one of the things I absolutely love about Albania. People are not in a hurry (unless they're male & driving a big flashy car). People will pass the time of day, greet you, (even if they are in a car in front of you & the person they see is a pedestrian) but in general they have time for you. Some people bemoan the fact that as Tirana (not Albania) develops, this is changing detrimentally. It's true of the Balkans in general, and, I suspect of many developing countries where time does not determine everything, & where people are not suffering from Hurry-sickness. People & relationships are what count.

There is, in fact, a new-ish movement called The Slow Movement. Books have been written e.g 'In Praise of Slow'

People are recognising the negative effects of stress, of hurrying & of never having enough time, as well as the dehumanising, joy robbing effects of being in a permanent hurry.

I read a book recently which was about various 'disciplines'. In it the author says hurry is the enemy of love. They are incompatible. You cannot show love & concern for people if you are in a hurry. He also talks of 'Sunset Fatigue' the fatigue at the end of the day when we are too drained, tired or preoccupied to give love to those we care for most. How very true.

He gives a funny example of how one evening he was bathing his young daughter who, when she got very excited, would run round in circles singing 'Dee Dah Day, Dee Dah Day' His response was to say, “Hurry up Mallory & get dried & dressed”.

She stopped, looked at him & said “Why?”

She was living in the moment (as children do, & enjoying that moment greatly it seemed!)

And he didn't have an answer for her. He didn't have anything specific to do, appointments, calls, not even a TV programme to watch! He just wanted to get through the bed time routine, get her to bed & on to the next thing. And it made him think. He said we spend so much of our time preparing for the next thing or racing through something to get onto the next thing. But why? (Note here it was the father doing this, not the mother who might have had just cause to want to hurry if she had been looking after miniature people all day.........)

And I am sure you have all had that most discomfiting experience at a gathering when you are talking to someone & you see their eyes look past you to somewhere else or someone else, or look around the room, before flitting back to you as you struggle on with what you were (so interestingly) saying. I dry up when that happens to me. I am ashamed to say my worst experience of this was a pastor of a church I was introduced to. He clearly was far too busy & preoccupied to be talking to me....

The author also suggests that hurry makes us multi-task (which research now suggests is less effective or productive than focussing on one thing at a time as our brains prefer) & that 'hurry' also contributes to superficiality. In our internet, information age we have perhaps traded breadth for depth. Depth isn't achieved quickly. This is something I struggle with as a teacher, for example, with students who are used to abbreviated writing forms (Twitter, Facebook, Texting), constantly changing images, a plethora of social media, surfing rapidly from one topic to another on the internet. Trying to read a novel or keep such students' attention for an hour is quite a challenge.

Two things which the writer recommends to 'cure' hurry-sickness are: 'slowing' & 'solitude'. He suggests deliberately choosing situations where you have to wait or slow down – not jumping the queues in a supermarket, driving in the slow lane, not honking your horn (that's a tricky one for me here in Albania, where my hand rests permanently on the horn), waiting to let people out from a side road. Try & focus on one thing rather than multi tasking, or bite your tongue rather than finishing your children's sentences for them, stop making To Do lists. The list is endless, so to speak.

The other – solitude, is the place where we can gain freedom from the forces of society which try to mould us. The truth is, as Kierkegaard once said, “The press of busyness is like a charm”. It makes us feel important, keeps the adrenaline pumping. It means we don't have to look too closely at the heart or at life. It keeps us from feeling our loneliness. It's good sometimes to stop & question why we do certain things. Is it because it makes us feel needed or important? As an experiment go somewhere with no phone/Blackberry/ipod/book/notepad & just sit & do nothing. It's incredibly difficult & agitating when you are unused to slowing. It's like being on the treadmill at the gym when you look down thinking, “I must have been going at least 6 minutes already, only to find you've done 2.” Again it's something I saw a lot both in Sri Lanka and here. People just watch the world go by. I am constantly amazed at how people can just sit & do nothing, not even read. I am not necessarily advocating that but hopefully there is a middle ground.

It is for these lessons that I am, strangely, most grateful to my time abroad for. The very things that I have found most challenging, I have learnt most from. I have had enforced slowness & solitude. I have experienced loneliness & I have learnt the value of gratitude, enjoying simple pleasures (e.g. electricity!), of contentment, of having time for people & valuing every relationship, even if it is the day to day interaction with a neighbour or shop assistant. It is dignifying everyone's humanity & worth I believe. It says 'I may be busy but I am not in too much of a hurry to greet you & ask how you are doing'.

Our children have had fewer opportunities and less to do in terms of school & activities perhaps, but in the school of Life, they have travelled all round the Balkans & Asia, lived in two very different cultures, interacted with multiple different nationalities on a daily basis, and are incredibly close for boy/girl siblings 4 years apart. As a family we rely heavily on each other, we can make our own entertainment & we truly appreciate community & inter-dependence.

I hope I can hold onto these lessons when I dive back into the British rat-race & the maelstrom of middle England.