How to capture better digital photos of your children and other adults, using natural light

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This gallery contains 35 photos.


In this brief guide I am going to share some tips I have learned from professional photographers, and from a number of courses and private lessons I have been on. Before I even start, the first and foremost thing worth … Continue reading

Wonderful trip to Paris, while pregnant and with a toddler


Visiting Paris is a memorable experience, right?

Having done it with just my husband (when there was just us two) and having previously lived in Paris for seven years in my student years, doing it with a toddler in tow and pregnant was a (totally crazy) different experience.

Only joking, it was still wonderful, and not more stressful because, hold tight, we didn’t cram in too much during our 3 days there.

Packing too many things during the stay can make it stressful, so we wanted to have a relatively free and spontaneous programme, while also having a list of things to do/see. Having one key attraction per day was the perfect amount we found.

So on to what worked well for us?

Stay close to the departure/arrival station

Well, first staying somewhere close to ‘the point of entry’ i.e. for us the Eurostar arrival station, Gare du Nord. We booked an AirBnb apartment about 10 minutes walk from Gare du Nord and that was brilliant. It meant that we could ‘check-in’ first and drop our bags and have a quick refreshment/put my feet up. Also for our toddler it was exciting to discover a new place and enjoy some quiet time before we set off for an outing again.

Beautiful Canal St Martin area

The second good thing about the location of our apartment was that we were quite close to the beautiful canal St Martin, with its many coffee shops, bars and brasseries. So after a quick rest we headed out again and stopped for a late lunch in one of the canal facing, brasseries. Along the canal there is a playground, an additional attraction for our toddler who still had some remaining energies after all.

Being in a different country is interesting when you observe your own child trying to interact with other local children. And before you ask, no I wasn’t providing any kind of translation, to questions, such as “can i have a go at the swing”, that doesn’t need any translating, does it?

Balloon adventure at Parc Andre Citroen

The definite highlight of our trip was the “balloon” adventure. During my years of studying in Paris and working intermittently as an ‘au pair’ I had gained a good ‘children related’ knowledge of playgrounds and adventure parks.

One I was very familiar with was Parc Andre Citroen, in the 15th arrondissement. It is a little bit out of the way and not a main tourist attraction but for kids it is magical. 

The park has a number of gardens and a great fountain court with water jets that can be such great fun, in hot weather. You can sit on the grass and enjoy a picnic while you look at the balloon, which is not a “hot air” but a “tethered” balloon that goes up to 150 metres. The views of the Seine and the Tour Eiffel are splendid and it is not as crowded as the Tour Eiffel or Sacre Coeur Cathedral.

‘Toujours dans mon coeur’ Quartier Latin

Another favourite area I always love to visit when in Paris, is the Quartier Latin or 5th arrondissement, perhaps because I love to go back to the ‘student streets’ of la Sorbonne where I spent many splendid youthful years.

Jardin du Luxembourg cannot be sidelined and hidden in there, is another great adventure playground for kids, “Les Poussins Verts”.  This one was way too busy than the quiet and relaxing Parc Andre Citroen but it is centrally located and you also have to pay a small fee.

One thing we had not noticed on our previous trips, was the lack of escalators or lifts in the “Metro”. If you can manage not to have a buggy or can take with you a collapsible one, underground journeys will be less tiring.

By the end of the third day in Paris, while also quite pregnant, 7th months precisely, I was starting to feel the heat of the streets and the underground and it was soon time to leave.

Eurostar here we come!

Heading towards Gare du Nord and the exciting Eurostar journey, was extremely pleasant and another adventure for our toddler, the train and the tunnel under the sea!

Some photos from the trip, unseen before, enjoy!

I would love to hear if you have been to any of these places in Paris or have any others to share.

Love

Need your opinion please – I am thinking of changing this blog to a photography portfolio


My dear blog followers,

I would like to ask for your advice about the future of this blog and its “raison d’etre”. I am thinking to change it into a blog portfolio of my photography. This blog initially started as a place to write about a number of things: being an Albanian in London, becoming a parent and a mother, learning and practicing photography, writing etc. Perhaps too many things?

SO i am thinking of repurposing the blog to turn it into one single thing: a blog where i showcase my photography, a photography portfolio. The intention being to do more photography in 2017 and build a body of work by photographing friends and family and connections. Once i have practiced more and have a number of sessions under my belt, i could then start thinking about doing it more professionally with clients (and people i don’t know). I am also planning to take courses and learn more on the technical and other aspects of photography.

I would change the name of the blog to Laura Shimili Mears Photography (same as my Facebook photography page). I would also not have the current posts anymore (for which i feel a bit sorry but hey… they’ve been there for a long time now). I would change the domain name too, so the only thing that would be the same (hopefully) would be you.


So i have put together a simple poll to ask you to vote on whether you think changing this blog into a photography blog is a good idea and whether you would continue to follow me?

Please vote below, i would really appreciate your feedback to give me an indication of your acceptance of the change. Thank you all and sending you lots of love.

Interviste me Fanfara Tiranen dhe Hysni Zelen pas koncertit te tyre ne Londer


Me siguri keni degjuar te flitet per Fanfara Tiranen. Si? Jo? Zgjohuni menjehere, keni humbur nje nga spektaklet me te bukur te muzikes shqiptare me miksim tingujsh tradicionale e moderne. Fanfara Tirana luan bashke me Transglobal Underground dhe pjese e grupit eshte edhe mjeshtri i muzikes popullore shqiptare Hysni Zela. 

Nese kerkoni ne Google emrin e tyre, do t’ju dale faqja Facebook a grupit me datat e koncerteve. Ata jane vazhdimisht ne turne  dhe se fundmi ishin ne Kine, ne veri te Anglise dhe me pas ne Londer. Shikoni daten me te afert dhe sigurohuni te zini vend per koncertin e ardhshem. Kercimi, vallja dhe hareja jane efektet kryesore që ju shkakton ky bashkepunim unikal. Ose blini albumin Kabatronics dhe shikoni videot ne YouTube.

Po cfare muzike luan Fanfara Tirana dhe Transglobal Underground?

Me nje pershkrim te shkurter, eshte muzike tradicionale e jugut te Shqiperise e miksuar me tinguj moderne. Disa kenge jane “Shege e kuqe”, “Xhixhile” te përziera me ritme elektronike, reggae dhe dub. Por ka dhe polifoni dhe hare dasmash.

Si dy zerat kryesore te grupit, Londinezi Tuup dhe mjeshtri i madh i këngës popullore Hysni Zela, mund të duken sikur nuk kanë asgjë të përbashkët por në skenë prodhojnë një harmoni perfekte, në sfondin e tingujve që vijnë nga anë të ndryshme të botës.

Pyetjes se si funksionon bashkimi midis dy rrymave muzikore kaq te ndryshme, Hysniu i pergjigjet:

“Me thoni ju se si ju duket bashkimi?” Fantastik eshte pergjigja e publikut.

Fuzioni midis tingujve të kabasë së Shqipërisë së jugut, klarinetës, perkusioneve dhe kitarës tradicionale indiane, tingëllon si një fuzion organik, ku të gjithë anëtarët e grupit luajnë në simbiozë. 

Por si u krijua bashkëpunimi unikal midis dy grupeve? 

Idenë e vuri në jetë Olsi Sulejmani, themelues i agjensisë World Music Management bazuar në Itali, i cili duke njohur muzikën e të dyja palëve, e drejtoi grupin londinez drejt grupit shqiptar. 

Prania e Hysni Zelës veshur me fustanelle te bardhe, qeleshe e papuce, i fton njerezit per fotografi si dhe pyetje e kureshtje pafund.

“Veshjet tradicionale janë pjesë e mrekullive tona”, thotë Hysniu. “Por mrekullia me e madhe  është polifonia”. 

Edhe pse në pension, Hysniu bashkepunon me Fanfaren. Pjese e procesit krijues per te eshte mbledhja e tingujve dhe e muzikes nëpër fshatra, pasi “kënga është në popull”, thotë ai.

Një anëtar tjeter i grupit Xhemal Murraj na tregon për pritjen e publikut anglez që ka qenë shumë e ngrohtë.

“Bashkëpunimi me një kulturë tjetër dhe një stil muzikor shumë të ndryshëm, ka qenë pa vështirësi”, thotë ai, gjë të cilën publiku e ndjen.

Ndërkohë muzikanti i Transglobal Underground, Tuup, e shijon bashkëpunimin me muzikantët shqiptarë. Në skenë ai kërcen duke ‘lëvizur lehtë shpatullat’, një mënyrë kërcimi karakteristike shqiptare dhe tregon se këtë  ‘e ka mesuar nga anëtarët e grupit’. 

Ai thotë, “3 cilësi i pëlqejnë më shumë te shqiptarët, respekti, ngrohtësia dhe vlerësimi i gjërave të mira ne jetë, ushqimi, pijet dhe prezenca femërore”.

Përballë një përzierje sa të çuditshme po dhe aq tërheqëse, publiku ndjehet i “çarmatosur” dhe nuk mund t’i rezistojë tingujve “ngjitës” që të bëjnë të hidhesh e të kërcesh. 

Kjo muzikë është një nga ambasadorët më të mirë të Shqipërisë jashtë vendit dhe si e tille meriton te gjithe mbeshtetjen dhe pelqimin tone.

Why housing needs to be talked about by everyone?  


Housing became a political issue during the 2015 election campaign but it needs to get even bigger with the general public. 

The reason why people don’t talk about housing is because it sounds complicated and difficult to tackle. 

But it isn’t necessarily. Housing can be as simple as:

everyone needs a home 

we all need to be able to live somewhere we can afford

we all should be able to have some form of asset (housing is one of them) or skills that enables us to participate in the economic activity 

some people cannot afford rents or house prices and they look for help. They register with local authorities and wait for a long term to have a subsidised house 

some people can only afford a portion of their house and they look for a product such as shared ownership 

some people can afford to buy and they do 

a supply of different products and types of housing is needed to cater for all the different needs. 

So all these situations are about housing. Something that affects everyone. 

However not many people talk about it in these terms. 

The housing sector which is all the social landlords, including councils as landlords and all the people that are employed by them, together with housing charities, think tanks, pressure groups, social activists are passionate about housing. 

They are passionate because they believe in the purpose of their work. Which is to manage homes and communities and give their tenants, who need some help, support for a better life. 

The housing sector needs to talk passionately about housing outside the sector. 

“We want people to be enraged by the education issue”, said during the CIH Housing conference 2015, Jo Denye from Teach First. 

Teach First have managed to become the leading graduate recruiter in the UK in the last 12 years. They attract and retain talented, high flying graduates who want to give something back to the community. 

Housing needs to be able to talk to students about housing with passion and have a leadership programme in place for the talented students who want to make a contribution. 

The social and economic case is there. We just need to shout about it and have a strong offer and clear language in place for everyone. 

  

  

http://honestmum.com/brilliant-blog-posts-25th-june-2015/ 

9 sure signs that you live in Britain


There are a few things which are definitely British, things that you are not likely to experience in other countries. As an Albanian expat living in London I have been through them, in the last seven years of my life.

1. You know for sure you live in the UK if you still cover yourself at night, with a duvet in the summer.

2. You call the summer season, summer, just because that’s what called generally, but you feel cold and you go to work wearing a blazer and a scarf. Something you also do in the autumn and in the spring, so where is the difference?

3. You wear lovely summer dresses with leggings. Leggings were invented for the British summer. You would not need them in the Albanian summer.

4. One particular British habit seems to cause uproar in among fellow Albanian expats, sending thank you cards. You send thank you cards after birthday parties, when you or your children receive presents, when you receive greeting cards or thank you cards. To which you respond with a thank you card. And then what happens to all these cards? The cards industry goes from strength to strength in Britain but it’s something we used to do during communism in Albania and people feel allergic to it.

5. The summer solstice (21 of June) is not celebrated in Britain. Well it is but only at Stonehenge by some disciples of the sun. It is one of the best things they do in France; they celebrate it as “la fete de la musique” with gigs in public squares with a jolly atmosphere, drinks and a lot of “camaraderie” (read friendships).

6. When you start fretting about your child’s success in life at the age of 4, is definitely a sign you live in the UK. That is the age when they start primary school and there are many, many studies that show a direct correlation between your child’s future profession and earnings and the school they attend, of course private schools, feature highest.

7. There is only one country in the world where people are so polite, they don’t tell you what they think. In all other countries, people die to tell you what they think. But not in Britain, you can try but you will never succeed and you will always wonder what people really think of you, for ever.

8. British people are so protective of their land that they have all sorts of planning rules that discourage building on land. So it’s only about 10% of land in England that is built on. On the other hand, they have one of the most expensive housing markets. No wonder as they don’t want to use their land for other things, other than leaving it empty.

9. Green spaces and lush countryside is another sure sign you are in the UK. It’s great for the eye and for recreation purposes but does create huge imbalances between those that own and those that don’t (see above)!

Have I missed any other definite signs that you live in the UK? Have you got any others I have missed?

9 Sure Signs You Live in Britain

How did communist Albania help preserve neighbouring Corfu? An interesting fact


The reason for this area of Corfu remaining unspoilt to this day, as we discovered, is its proximity to communist Albania.

The reason for this area of Corfu remaining unspoilt to this day, as we discovered, is its proximity to communist Albania.

Beyond Agios Stephanos, the Albanian coast and Ksamil by the sea

 

Boat entering Agios Stephanos bay, opposite Albanian coastline

Boat entering Agios Stephanos bay, opposite Albanian coastline

While holidaying in the North-Eastern part of Corfu, in the area of Agios Stephanos, we discovered a very interesting fact about Albania and Corfu.

Albania is geographically very close to the North-East of Corfu, the distance is said to be about three quarters of a mile. And during our stay, we could actually see Albania’s mountains and coastline very close from our villa, in Agios Stephanos.

It is the southern part of Albania that is so near that you feel “you could touch it with your hand” (an Albanian expression). The same for the small town by the sea of Ksamil, the ancient archeological site of Butrint and the southernest mountainous village of Konispol. Their lights would shine across the sea, at night.

It is so close that I kept asking my father constantly “is that Albania” in disbelief, “is that our country”? He kept answering “yes, yes, and yes” till I stopped asking.

I was so surprised by the proximity because up until now, aged 35 I had no idea that Albania was so close to Corfu. I knew it was close from Saranda, a bigger town of the South, half an hour away from the border. (We had departed from Saranda to Corfu when I was 12, my first trip abroad with my father, so I was familiar with that route).

But here, in the precise location of Agios Stephanos, Albania was much closer. It seemed to me that it is possible for a good swimmer, to swim across the sea, in perhaps 1 hour, from these nearest points on both sides. After some research I found the answer to this. A British, Thomas Hodgkinson, has actually swam the distance of three quarters of a mile, from Albania to the bay of Agios Stephanos in 2011, in 1 hour 10 minutes.

Corfu being so close to Albania at this point, made me think about the excellent opportunity the location must have presented at the time, to escape the communist regime.

It must have been the Mecca of all those wanting to leave the country and find refuge in a western country.

But as you would expect, the area was fortified with a heavy military presence, to prevent the escapees from reaching Greek shores. And it was possibly mined, I was told recently.

On the other hand, from Corfu shores, the heavy military fortification of the Albanian border, presented a threat and was a cause of fear.

And this is where it starts to get interesting. The area of Agios Stephanos, is a beautiful part of Corfu which has remained unspoilt from the building boom of the 70s where most parts of Corfu were developed into resorts and blocks of flats for European tourists.

From the hilltops you can enjoy a clear view over olive trees, the bay of Agios Stephanos and in the distance, the imposing mountains of Albania.

The reason for this area remaining unspoilt to this day, as we discovered, is its proximity to communist Albania. Because it was so close, building in this area was “restricted”. There were no roads either, before the 70s, something that slowed down the pace of development. But the main reason, for this part of Corfu keeping its original unspoilt character, was Albania’s communism.

It is quite ironic that on one side, the location was a golden opportunity for escaping from the country but also an impossible mission, as every movement was watched and the area heavily patrolled. No one would leave the shore alive.

On the other hand, communist Albania had a beneficial effect on neighbouring Corfu, as it preserved one of its best areas as a traditional fishing village, to this day. Thanks communist Albania!

For us going there from London, me being Albanian and my husband English, with my Albanian parents, the fact was very telling. It was insider’s knowledge as well, as the owner of the villa we were staying in, an architect and builder, told us this story.

What an irony of history! It is the same sea, the same place. On one side of it, the country and its people are degraded by a brutal regime and on the other side, the countryside is preserved and enriched thanks to the same brutal regime and the threat it represented.

It is a shame the enriching and preservation didn’t happen on both sides. But Albania will catch up and its coast and its villages will also turn again into traditional places that display a rich culture and history. What is happening now, is similar to what happened in Corfu in the 70s, an uncontrolled building boom.

It will take some time but anecdotes like this one, will also be told to tourists, on the other side, the Albanian side, about some positive effects Corfu had on a part of Albania which will be preserved at its best.

There are examples already, the archeological site of Butrint who receives a lot of attention from Corfu and foreign tourists in the area. Agios Stephanos also share the same patron, the father of the Rothschild family (insider’s knowledge again, from the same source).

The Pope’s visit to Albania has turned Albania (my lovely country) into a positive example abroad


The Pope visited Albania yesterday, Sunday 21st of September 2014.

It was an emotional visit for many, catholic and muslims alike, as he was seen by Albanians as a  blessing to their country and its continuous efforts for improvement and an homage to its long suffering people.

Also very importantly the Pope’s visit has turned Albania into a positive example abroad and an inspiration for other countries. Albania’s portrayal by the media abroad, under a positive light is amazing on many fronts:

– it is so unusual as the opposite negative image is often aired, of a country crippled by corruption and organised crime. So hopefully images and stereotypes will change and ordinary citizens will be able to remember a positive fact about Albania.

– it will be inspiring for others abroad and hopefully show that it is possible to have different religions co-exist harmoniously – especially in the current efforts to counteract the violence and extremism shown by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Currently 3 religions co-exist peacefully in Albania, muslim, catholic and orthodox. The key to this is perhaps a moderate level of belief, not taken to extremes which allows for the acceptance of other forms of belief.

– it will be inspiring for Albanians themselves who have very little trust in their politicians and institutions. A blessing from the Pope can give people that touch of magic or supra-natural belief that things will get better for them.

– it will genuinely improve Albanians self-image and confidence as they can refer to an important collective event that enhanced them as people.

– it is a recognition of Albania’s hundreds of martyrs who died or were persecuted by the communist regime when Albania became the first atheist country in the world to officially ban religions. The communist dictator Enver Hoxha took the idea that “religion is the opium of the people” to an extreme and waged a war against religion, killing many priests and imams, and transforming many churches and mosques into cinemas, warehouses etc.

– it will help the collective psyche to accept the communist past and its horrible crimes better and reognise the pain suffered by its many victims. There are still people in Albania today who praise the dictator Enver Hoxha as the leader and the saviour of the nation!! ( I don’t know in which world they live but they need to wake up and listen to the victims’ side of history).

 

 

While watching the various photos and videos posted online by friends and media, I felt many times emotional (almost weeping but that’s probably due to the early-motherhood hormones) and mostly proud of my little country, who has indeed suffered a lot and has not had a very smooth history.

It is up to people to change their history and I hope the Pope’s visit will have given my fellow Albanians more courage and hope to tackle the problems and issues they face (which are many, unemployment, lack of opportunities, fleeing of the youth to other countries looking for better opportunities, poor health system, corruption, etc, etc).

The Telegraphs article

Pope visits Albania: 10 things you may not know one of Europe’s least understood countries

is quite nice and gives a few interesting facts about Albania. Do have a read.

Some beautiful photos were taken during the visit

http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/380220/news/world/muslims-and-christians-throng-albania-streets-to-greet-pope-francis

Do also have a look.

Let’s finish with a blessing, God (or the Pope) bless Albania.

 

Our memorable family holiday in the Ardeche region, south of France


This is the reworked and final draft of my ‘travel feature’ assignment – I shared an earlier version of it here on the blog and after I received some comments (by email, a great benefit of sharing your work) I have reviewed it below.

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For the adventurous family who likes to design their holiday and enjoys driving, France is an excellent destination offering countless possibilities.

After having completed the rite of passage of most British car travellers and spent a week in Brittany, the previous summer, we decided to travel further afield this time, to the south of France.

Our final destination, Vallon Pont d’Arc, a small town in the centre of the Ardeche region, offers spectacular views of the river Ardeche meandering through towering limestone cliffs.

River Ardeche meandering through gorges in the Ardeche

River Ardeche meandering through gorges in the Ardeche. The night before we had a storm raging through but barely bringing temperatures below 30 degrees next morning.

An impressive 60 m high, naturally formed arch gives its name to the town and forms the entrance to this tourist honeypot.

In the summer, streams of colourful canoes go under the Arch in their descent of the river Ardeche, the most popular activity in the area.

With two very young children, our two year old son and our French friends’ one year old daughter, we opted for the comfort of a holiday house. To our benefit the house had been recently renovated, with a particularly exotic touch – a spiral iron stairwell brought from Thailand!

A house within walking distance to the town centre was ideal and soon our early morning strolls for fresh croissants, became a ritual that the children enjoyed.

Vallon Pont d’Arc is centrally located making it easy to go on half-day trips to nearby places. And for us long distance travellers, it was fantastic not to spend a lot of time on the road.

The town itself is home to a host of markets where local producteurs sell their delicious products. Ham, saucisson, wine, cheese and lavender flavoured nougat were some of the delicacies we tried.

Lavender is a local speciality and many by-products are sold in the local Lavender Museum, where visitors can also take photos in idyllic lavender fields.

Lavender fields at the Lavender Museum in Vallon Point d'Arc, in Ardeche

Lavender fields at the Lavender Museum in Vallon Point d’Arc, in Ardeche

Although tempted to only relax by the river or sit in a cafe while watching locals play petanque, we also had more physical activities and went canoeing, through the famous arch and into unspoilt pebbled beaches alongside the river. For those interested in pre-historic art, the area is a real treasure with its many pre-historic caves.

And if after swimming and canoeing in the river, enjoying panoramic views or immersing yourself in history, you feel eager for more, there is still plenty to do.

A number of villages of particular beauty are close by and have old houses clinging on to steep slopes, impressive beaches surrounded by high cliffs and pedestrian only centres where you can cool off with an artisan ice-cream.

Beach by the river Ardeche, in Balazuc

Beach by the river Ardeche, in Balazuc

Having a chocolate and vanilla ice cream might not be the climax for everyone but it certainly was for our son as was the coffee flavour for our friend Jérémie.

The impressive range of activities, natural beauty and culinary delights made Vallon Pont d’Arc a perfect holiday destination, worth getting to after long hours of driving from London. In a car without air-conditioning, I can now reveal, something that we will remedy before our next drive through France.

Outsiders – how does it feel to be on the outside?


Is it good to feel an outsider or we shouldn’t give it too much importance? After all as long as we feel good within ourselves the notion of ‘outsider’ shouldn’t apply – you cannot be an outsider in that regard. But when we think about society and what everyone can achieve, it is easy to see and define some as outsiders, those who don’t benefit in the same way to the benefits of society as others. Is that fair, how can that be changed? Here is my view of outsiders.

New Year celebrations, as they used to be in Albania and how it is today for me in England


What is a big thing and has just passed? Christmas in England and New Year in Albania, some traditions and perspectives

Laura's Little Things

New Year celebrations are a big thing in Albania, much more than in the UK. This is because of the communist past where Christmas could not be celebrated and instead all the efforts and the attention were on New Year. We had Father Christmas (wearing the same red suit and a white beard) but he was ‘Babagjyshi i Vitit te Ri’ meaning the ‘Old Man of New Year’. So he would come on New Year’s day and give children presents. He would also represent the old year that was about to end and in a popular children’s theatre the old man is replaced by a young man, who brings along the new year and also hopes and a new start for everyone.

We also had the tree but again not the Christmas tree but New Year’s tree. And on New Year families would celebrate together, cooking big meals and turkey…

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New Year celebrations, as they used to be in Albania and how it is today for me in England


New Year celebrations are a big thing in Albania, much more than in the UK. This is because of the communist past where Christmas could not be celebrated and instead all the efforts and the attention were on New Year. We had Father Christmas (wearing the same red suit and a white beard) but he was ‘Babagjyshi i Vitit te Ri’ meaning the ‘Old Man of New Year’. So he would come on New Year’s day and give children presents. He would also represent the old year that was about to end and in a popular children’s theatre the old man is replaced by a young man, who brings along the new year and also hopes and a new start for everyone.

My son standing by our Christmas tree in London

My son standing by our Christmas tree in London

We also had the tree but again not the Christmas tree but New Year’s tree. And on New Year families would celebrate together, cooking big meals and turkey, and the traditional homemade bakllavas and kadaifs (sweets of turkish origin in Albania but very engrained in the culture). The main blocks of Christmas celebrations were there but under a different name and happening on a different date.

An Albanian speciality which remains popular is the festive New Year’s eve TV programme with songs and comedy sketches that would accompany families’ dinners until the early hours of the morning. And also the fireworks a modern addition, where almost everyone will fire fireworks from their balconies or terraces at midnight on New Year’s eve.

Our representation of New Year was wider than just the year’s end, as it incorporated all the Christmas imagery but with a different meaning and messaging. And it had the positive message of the start of a new year that would bring excitement and joy.

Communists don’t celebrate Christmas!

You may not know this but Albania is the only country ever that has banned religion and made it illegal. The communist leader Enver Hoxha persecuted and eliminated thousands of priests and religious activists in an effort to eradicate what Marx called ‘the opium of the people’ when referring to religion. Of course this was a criminal act that caused the death and sufferance of thousands of people and it remains a dark moment of our history.

So being a child in communist Albania at Christmas time was a curious thing. My grandmother was religious, with the Orthodox church and she was also born in Corfu (from Albanian parents who had immigrated in neighbouring Corfu from the south of Albania).

She had two important dates in December, the 14th of December the date of celebrating the patron of Corfu, Saint Spyridon and Christmas day.

Llukumadhe look a bit these, made by my mother

Llukumadhe look like these, made by my mother

For the first she would cook ‘llukumadhe’ a type of pancake that we would eat with a lot of sugar until we (children) would feel our bellies exploding.

For the second we would have a family dinner and she would burn candles in secret. Of course we couldn’t say anything to other people about these events as this could compromise my grandfather’s position (he was a military doctor that had studied in Russia and fought with the partisans) and consequently everyone else’s (his children, my mother’s, father’s etc.). So we had to be quiet and secretive about it.

As a child I was never encouraged to believe in Father Christmas as it wasn’t part of our beliefs. Babagjysh, the old man of New Year was a positive, religion-free figure that brought hope, a new beginning and happiness and as a child I had some feelings for him.

Christmas is back in Albania

Since the change of regime in Albania in the early 90s, religions are no longer illegal. For historic reasons before communism, people in Albania followed three main religions – muslim (brought in by the Ottoman invasion in the beginning of the 15th century), orthodox (introduced in Albania earlier as part of the Greek Church) and catholic (even earlier with the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church). So after the ‘communist religious blip’ we are back to where we were before, with most of the population being muslim, a smaller percentage catholic and an even smaller one orthodox.

Because religion has not had a very strong role in people’s lives in Albania, Christmas as a religious celebration is celebrated by a minority.

The occasion however as a general public holiday and festive day is celebrated in a different way, for example a Christmas evening booked at a restaurant with live music and a lot of dancing (dancing is a strong part of Albanian traditions).

The long journey to Christmas in the UK

I try to be weary of generalizing and I know not everyone is the same and the ways people celebrate Christmas in the UK can be different. But for almost everyone and judging from conversations and what people say on social media, Christmas is a big ordeal!

It is a big occasion when families get together and there is a lot to organise from the shopping list, to the christmas menu, the list of presents, decorations for the house, the tree, christmas music etc, etc. And there is the whole christmas branding, adverts, lights, supermarket offers, retail sales, etc. It is quite easy from an outsiders point of view to associate Christmas with commercial opportunities (for businesses and consumerism for consumers). But behind that there is a genuine element of spending time with your cousins, brothers and sisters etc something that doesn’t happen often.

My son is the youngest one and this is one of his favourite activities, going for a walk with the dog, his cousins, parents and aunties and uncles

My son is the youngest one and this is one of his favourite activities, going for a walk with the dog, his cousins, parents and aunties and uncles

Even my mother who since I started living in the UK has attempted to learn a bit of English following a ‘Learn English’ book for children said that she read in her book about a little boy who said ‘I love Christmas as it is the time when I see my cousins, who I don’t see very often, only once a year’.

So there is the family spirit and it is the one I have appreciated the most in my last 4 English Christmases.

New Year celebrations in London, candles and Hawaiian theme party

Our New Year celebrations this year in London, included a Hawaiian theme party

When it comes to New Year celebrations, New Year has less importance and is often spent with friends organising themed parties where everyone dresses up in the chosen theme.

Hawaiian party decorations in our flat in London

Hawaiian party decorations in our flat in London

New memories similar to the old ones

Without wanting to sound nostalgic I feel that although it is in a different time and space my son’s memories of Christmas will be quite similar to the ones from our New Year’s celebrations.

What he loves the most is seeing his grandparents, their dog, his cousins, being with everyone around and spending that leisurely time in each others company.

For me, my best memories of New Year were similar, the spirit of everyone coming together, celebrating and having some special food and special time. Presents were never a strong part and I hope we manage to teach that to our son, that Christmas is not about the presents only. This may prove hard as for children naturally the unwrapping of presents on Christmas day is at the heart of the excitement but we need to try our best to emphasise the importance of the company of each other, instead.

My cousins and I had our favourite activity during New Year celebrations – playing with cards and betting small amounts of money. The excitement of winning (and misery of loosing) was what kept us playing until our banks were empty. The other one was on 1st January, we would go around to our relatives houses to try some of their baklavas and also be given a small amount of cash. This was part of the tradition and we would have it every year. After doing the round of the houses we would sit down at a cafe and enjoy an ice-cream or some other sweet, in a ‘civilised way’ we would call it, like our parents would do.

I am sure my son and his cousins will have their own stock of memories built over the years.

After all that is what Christmas and New Year (in the Albanian way) are about, spending time with your cousins!

My son and his cousins playing a game of closing their eyes before opening some of the presents

My son and his cousins playing a game of closing their eyes before opening some of the presents

Christmas day 2013 walk; my son with his younger cousin; is a special photo for me that best conveys the joy of Christmas

I have included this post as part of the Daily Post theme – Happy, happy, joy, joy as this post is all about happiness at special times of the year, Christmas and New Year.