Saturday, April 30, 2011

What Did You Do?

Several Brits & ex-pat bloggers have talked about being sad to be away from home for the Royal Wedding. I wasn't. I think I probably had a more fun day that if I'd been at home, when I'd have just been watching it on the telly. And I probably felt more British & proud because I was away from my home country. And suddenly, of course everyone thinks you're an expert on the wedding & all things Royal simply by dint of nationality.

All the Brits in Tirana were invited to the British Ambassador's residence for a 'street party' & to watch the wedding. I thought it was a pretty cool place to spend the day. Where were you on Will & Kate's wedding day etc.....?

Dress casual. But my flamboyant British friend of the leopard print shoes, decided it was her one & only chance to wear a hat in Albania, so she wore a patriotic red hat, red coat, red shoes, navy trousers & white blouse. I donned a posh summer frock & sandals, & raced off to school as usual to teach my 3 morning lessons, then went & picked up 5 Brits from the Lower School , who were all in red, white & blue, having somehow purloined Union Jacks, flags with Will & Kate on them & even Union Jack scarves. My dress was turquoise & taupe (hadn't occurred to me people would wear red, white & blue.......)

Sadly Albania being post-Communist & not post-Colonial, the Ambassador's residence is more Barratt home than Viceroy's villa. Nevertheless, a lawn in Albania is something of a novelty. What am I saying? It's unheard of. So, standing on a lawn, in a garden, felt very English, even without the herbaceous borders. The Ambassador's lawn was festooned with bunting, balloons, red, white & blue 'swags' between trees & even Union Jack paper chains inside. And of course Emma Bridgewater napkins & paper cups. All brought in, in the diplomatic bag no doubt. We had Gin & Tonic on tap, with the Albanian waiters pouring the gin saying,

'Tell me how much you want, I don't know how much you are supposed to have!' Or what to mix it with I discovered....
So I knew for sure I wasn't in a British pub being served a watery one measure G&T. I haven't had such a strong gin since my husband's great aunt in deepest Devon used to pour ones which made the plants wilt (should you have disposed of yours in that way). Strong gins are even named after her in the family.

There was even a raffle with Walkers' shortbread, tins of tea, marmalade, sherry, Will & Kate tea towels, Union Jack mugs & cushions, all laid out on a Union Jack cloth. It was fantastic, so over the top.

We watched the wedding on about 6 wide screen TVs & I loved every minute of it: the dresses, the music, definitely the maple trees in the Abbey, the sermon, Harry joking around, the verger doing a cartwheel down the aisle in the empty abbey afterwards, the mix of ceremony & informality, the roaring, well behaved crowds. I felt proud to be British.

Actually no, those hats. I couldn't love those. They looked to me like UFOs perching on a hostile planet; Tara Palmer-Tomlinson & the Fergie Sisters were the worst culprits. Oh & Victoria Beckham's shoes. 6 inch heels with built in platforms, & the same UFO landing up top. And she's pregnant. And poor Samantha Cameron getting stick for NOT wearing a hat. I'm sorry but if those hats were the options........& anyway why should she?

Oh, & I learned a new word - Fascinator. For those sculptures masquerading as hats. Turns out it's not even a new word; it had fallen into disuse by the 1970s, but it's back with a vengeance now. I think Abominator would be better, but hush, I'm beginning to sound very middle aged & like Victor Meldrew. And what do I know about fashion?

I must show the pictures to my children & get their honest, uninhibited verdicts.

I went to a garden party at Buckingham palace with my parents when I was 20 & loved it, partly for curiosity's sake & partly for the 'sense of occasion'. But that was a poor shadow of Friday's ceremony. Everyone says it and so do I,
'No one does pomp & circumstance quite like the British.'
Funny thing to be good at, not necessarily a terribly useful national skill, though as my husband says,

"Wow, that's some project management, planning & executing a day like that!"

In our bleak & economically straitened times it was good. It was good to have a day like that with a good-news story, full of pageantry & celebration; something positive about Britain, & more particularly a day when for once you feel 'allowed' to be proud to be British. It was quite a fillip to my ex-pat soul. But indeed a fillip to anyone with a sense of wonder & romance left in their world-weary souls.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Head banging & Heavenly Thoughts

My husband has been away in LA & last weekend my son had a swimming party , so it was a good opportunity for some mother-daughter time. We went into Tirana to vandalised play ground that had finally been renovated . My daughter tried a few things but her heart wasn't in it, doing it alone. she is very close to her brother despite the 4 year age gap & they get on incredibly well 80% of the time. She is very dependent on him as a play mate. At times like this (& quite a few others) I am ashamed to say I momentarily forget to be grateful for my 2 miracle children & wish ours was a bigger family with smaller gaps & so more playmates. The minute one or other is off somewhere, it seems SO quiet & diminished. Both my husband & I grew up in big noisy families where there was always something going on & someone around. I guess it won't matter so much when they're older. But of course my son will reach that stage before my daughter is ready to lose her playmate.

So partly to change tack & partly because I was by then desperate for a coffee, we decided to go to the French Cafe for an edible treat. It is one of only 2 or 3 innovative cafes in Tirana where you can actually get something to eat alongside your espresso. They do French pastries, tarts & 'flan'. It has lots of mirrors, sparkly glass lights which my daughter loves & chic black & white, atmospheric Parisian posters. And yummy cakes. So it feels 'treaty' & grown up, which also appeals to her. As we have observed many a time here, the business opportunities for entrepreneurs are endless, (though the taxes, bribes & lack of a middle class with disposeable income are admittedly stumbling blocks) Yet when a new shop opens here it is invariably a cafe serving only drinks, a wedding dress shop or a fruit & veg shop. It makes sense in that everyone goes out for coffee (& it's cheap here), weddings last 3 days & often involve 3 changes of dresses & fruit & veg is local & cheap too.

So I guess the French cafe appeals predominantly to ex-pats who have different routines, there were people in there having breakfast, students studying & single guys reading the paper. We had a croissant aux amandes, a cappucino & a fruit juice, which meant the inevitable trip to the loo at the end of our visit. We walked through the glass dividing wall which separated the restaurant stalls from the cafe. As we came out of there, my daughter ran ahead, there was a crack & a yelp a she crumpled to the floor.

She had walked straight into the glass door. Someone had closed it behind us for some reason &, this being Albania & window cleaning (along with house cleaning) being something of a national obsession, she hadn't 'seen' the glass, it was so sparkly & clean you didn't notice it. Admittedly there was a large handle on the door , but not at her height. The waiter rushed off for ice &, as always with these situations, especially one involving a child, everyone rushed round offering advice & comfort. This distresses my daughter even more than the injury I think. She can't stand people seeing her cry, or laughing at her or watching her or touching her. Being constantly kissed & cheek pinched in Sri Lanka & Albania put paid to that.

I don't know what it is about my daughter & her head. She is always banging it. I mean always. I have had more notes about head injuries come home for her in 2 years than my son has had in nearly 4 years. She gets them all the time. She is one of those little girls who hangs permanently upside down on the monkey bars. She has fortunately now given that up & only does the monkey bars 'right way up', but she also always seems to be on a collision course with others, or in the way of a ball etc. I have half wondered whether to say anything or ask the teacher on duty to watch out for 'things she does' but then I thought that's just being too over-protective a parent.

Still, it doesn't seem to impede the use of her brain. She is constantly asking questions about things, or coming out with her various 'theories' . She's big into theories at the moment.

Theories & heaven. I don't have many answers for any of them.

For example, recently she told me how she couldn't believe that every snow flake was different when 'you think of all the snow in the world.' but then told me her Theory of Snowflakes'.
She told me she thought that when it stopped snowing, that was when God was making more patterns & thinking up more designs & when He'd got more, then it started snowing again.

She couldn't believe God could think up so many different patterns.

"I guess I could come up with maybe 20" (i.e a very big number) & meanwhile He's done 1000 million."

She also told me that she thinks an earth quake is when God lets go of the world with one hand for a moment, or else is sneezing or shivering. Fortunately we haven't got onto whether God can catch a cold or could in fact accidentally 'drop' the world on that basis. I guess children are used to living in a largely incomprehensible world in which amazing & mysterious things happen which they can't explain. Trouble is our children assume we can explain much of it....

I don't know where she gets this stuff from, but I am glad to see the old grey matter is ticking over & wrestling with thoughts (despite multiple head bangs).

She also has been asking me lots of questions about Heaven, prompted by a library book I think (& of course she has her own theories here too)

"Is Heaven 'up' there in the clouds?"

Before I can answer, she kindly furnishes me with her own theory & then goes on to explain why she has subsequently discarded it as a working theory.

"I thought clouds were each of our houses in Heaven but I know that can't be right because when we fly, we fly above the clouds & I don't see any houses in them, there's just nothing but fluff."

I agree there are no houses there. And she has already decided that Heaven must be 'beyond outer space'.

She seems content with this for the time being & has had enough theorising for one night. She pops her thumb back in her mouth, to indicate the discussion has ended & snuggles down under the covers.

"Night Mummy, see you in the morning."

Monday, April 11, 2011

Accolades, Blogging & Coming to Terms......As Easy as ABC

In the good, old, early days of blogging, & the new Mummy Blogger phenomenon, when everyone was giving each other awards, being in the Tots 100 Index was the mark of Mummyblogger success & people were appearing in magazine articles, or being interviewed by a Mums' websites etc; bloggers would coyly put up a post (if they were British) or with a fanfare of trumpets (if they were just about anyone else) drawing attention to their particular success.

And why not? That's why bloggers love comments, it shows people read you & have engaged with your subject. It affirms & encourages you. It works the same with awards & so on. It makes you feel it was worth all the hard work.

I must confess I am not at all 'techy', (you mean, you noticed?.....) I am not very good at putting myself out there, 'increasing traffic', jumping through all the hoops, I keep reading that I need to, in order to get more followers, more traffic etc. I honestly don' t know how people manage to do it, & have a real life & a family & work too. The little I do do takes me long enough! So maybe I don't work hard enough at it. The writing comes more naturally, the 'putting myself out there' doesn't. And now it's all about monetising your blog, advertising, sponsored posts & making your blog 'count' or pay. And I feel all at sea again.

So I just bumble along. I keep writing because I love it, even though I wonder sometimes why I do it (& whether I will carry on once back in the 'normal' UK). I think I do it to make sense of the extraordinary 5 1/2 years I've spent abroad. And that's another reason why this blog will never be very popular in Mummy-blogger or Expat-blogger terms. I find I have to write about stuff which happens & is relatively normal here. But it doesn't always make for light hearted reading. it's also about a country people know little about, & probably care even less about.

I am not making excuses, I'm not complaining. It's just that something happened on Friday which made me feel like I was barking up the wrong tree & should just accept who I am & what I am good at! I always want to fit in & be good at whatever I try my hand at, but deep down I have always felt I don't fit neatly into any particular category in the blogging world & don't seem to have my finger on the zeitgeist pulse of what people want to read (oweeee, how's that for a jumbled metaphor) and it frustrates me, especially amongst so many who are so good & do it so effortlessly.

So what happened? Well on Friday the little nascent high school I teach at put on their play. It was called "The Jolly Roger". I don't teach drama at the school & had nothing to do with it. My IGCSE students kept asking if I was coming & how it wouldn't be the same without me there (which I thought rather strange) So I went along with 6 & 10 y-o in tow. I was handed a programme & inside was an insert from the cast which said this:

I blotted out my name, but it was addressed to me, honest! I only teach 14 students & 5 were in the play, who wrote the comments.

So that was why they wanted me to come along. I was so touched. I have never had an accolade like this in 20 years of teaching. Sure a few thank you cards, & certainly good reports every time an OFSTED inspector entered my classroom. I went easily through all the threshold assessments in teaching before I left (which means I'm probably too expensive to get a job in the UK when I return, should I want one); but this was compeletely unprompted, out of the blue & ovewhelming. In the interval people kept coming up to me & saying, 'Well done' & 'Wow you should frame that.' etc.

I think the problem is, I am my own worst enemy. I have always discounted teaching because of the, 'If you can you do, if you can't, you teach' aphorism, which irritates me intensely but nevetheless niggles away at me. So I have never valued myself as a teacher. I'm a teacher, so what, I think? I have always felt I needed to prove myself at something else professionally, to somehow validate the teaching choice - (i.e. "I could do something else, but I chose not to.")

But this, more than any OFSTED inspectors, for some reason, finally jolted me into accepting that I am a good teacher & that I should be proud. I think because it came from the students themselves. Ok, so my humour is appealing to teenagers & they regard my 'dry wit' as sarcasm, but not even that can take away from the fact that I am just chuffed to bits. I'm going to drop the old British reserve & give a little toot on my trumpet, saying I am a teacher, I'm darn good at it & I'm not going to apologise for it.

As for blogging; well I need to accept I'm just an amateur, dabbling in a hobby, who is, like my own students, trying to learn & improve as she goes along. So please bear with me.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Business as Usual....

I'm sure you'll all be pleased to know it's business as usual back in 'Paradise'. The natural order that demonstrates the phenomenon of "When your spouse is away the children always get ill." & also the phenomenon of, "When you get back from holiday lots of things always go wrong " was alive & kicking last week.

When we got back we heard that 2 days before, colleagues in our NGO were involved in a head on collision with a Mercedes. Two staff members died (1 a 32 y-o mum wth 2 young children) & 9 were badly injured, 1 critically. They were in a furgon
(A furgon is a minibus taxi with no seat belts usually & fairly fast drivers.) They almost certainly had no seatbelts, but the accident wasn't the driver's fault. The worst of it was that evidently there are no emergency services here, only police, so you have to sort it all out yourself. Imagine that for a moment....

So the nearest NGO office workers went out & had to administer 1st aid, pull the bodies out of the wreckage, then drive the injured AND THE DEAD BODIES (of their colleagues) to the nearest hospital which was ill equipped, so they then had to go & buy mattresses for the injured to lie on. They were all badly shocked, the hospitals are terrible & the injured are in them on their own, far from their relatives in Tirana or Librazhd. One of these injured was in the furgon not able to move with 2 broken legs & watched her colleagues die whilst they waited for help....

A friend here, who does 'member care' as it's called, (bit like being a counsellor for overseas workers) did the 'Critical Outcome' Debrief- 1st proper one he'd done & found it v harrowing. He is leaving this summer & had prematurely (as it turned out), packed up all his notes & resources on this topic.

He said responses were text book
amongst Tirana office (who had colleagues hurt/die but weren't actually there) but for the Elbasan office, where they were the ones who pulled bodies out, saw colleagues die etc (& people were pretty mangled) they were all very resistant to being there but had been told they had to be. So my friend was in this room with glass on 3 sides, AND a corridor running down one side, told them to turn phones off so they put them all on vibrate on the tables in front of them & weren't at all focused. Most said they didn't want to be there because it brought it all back, they wanted to bury it, not think about it, & said they felt worse now doing the session than they had the previous few days when they thought they were getting better. It's yet another of the many examples here where people just don't 'know' stuff we take for granted. My friend was trying to explain about post traumatic stress disorder coming out 6 months later, or illness, hallucinations, whatever, if you don't deal with 'the stuff'; and that it would be far worse, but they've never HEARD this stuff & thought he was faintly unhinged.
It has really shaken everybody up & reminded us just how dangerous the roads (& much of the driving) is here.This week my husband was handing over to his colleague, the CEO of his partner NGO in Kosovo, so he was driving to their branches all round the whole country over last wk. Fortunately his driver is a very careful &  good driver, so much so that my husband has nicknamed him 'granny' (after his own granny who brought new meaning to the words 'careful'&  'slow') Unfortunately though, you can do nothing about the other nutters on the roads... he came back safe & sound anyway. But made for a bit of a wobbly wk for me.

It's funny when you're just about to leave you feel, 'Yay, I'm almost there, I've survived without killing a pedestrian, being in an accident, falling down a pothole or being electrocuted in our dodgy flat' but now I have become slightly paranoid. Friends of mine who rode bikes EVERYWHERE safely, (1 had been here 3 yrs, the other 7) both had accidents within a few weeks of leaving.

Ok, then much more minor but still horrible; on Tuesday we got sewage seepage again in our mains. To misquote Oscar Wilde, to happen once 'may be regarded as misfortune' but to happen twice 'looks like carelessness' Yes, someone was definitely being careless.

Here's what happened: when the kids had a bath on Tuesday night, I went in & the bath smelt of poo! It was also a faint browny colour though we get that after rain as our water comes from a well.
So I tried the taps & they were all smelling dreadful. I had made the mistake too of making tea with tap water before I had run the bath (or fully realised what was going on), but as I poured the tea it stank, so didn't drink it. Phew, saved by the smell...

Two days later, after ignoring my messages, ('saving face' issue again), the landlord put a few randomly selected chemicals into the tank after draining it, & chlorine down the well. A water engineer friend says you should empty the whole system & flush it through multiple times with anti-bacterial chemicals. Hey ho, that's just NOT going to happen. Oh & the reason? He told my husband it was because the villas around us until recently weren't on mains sewage so their sewage just seeped into the ground (maybe so)....but I don't believe that caused it because we have been here 3 years & if that happened every time it rained, our flat would be a permanent sewage works. In fact it has only happened once before which was when the landlord had switched everything off & was re-laying his own sewage pipes & his daughter turned something on which meant (on that occasion) raw sewage went into the well. Yeurrrrrrrgh. Anyway for me once was more than enough. Twice & someone somewhere is definitely being careless.

Personally I think it's from all the building work going on round us. They have probably broken through a sewage pipe somewhere.

By Friday 3 of us were laid up in bed with a diarrhoea & vomiting bug, despite not drinking the water (we don't ever anyway.) The children had bathed in it & did do their teeth in it. I didn't. We had washed dishes in it. Maybe it was just coincidence. At least this time round our typhoid is up to date....