Locals of Tirana seen through the lens of an insider-outsider

Locals of Tirana (1)This is the start of a series that I would love to continue as an ongoing project.

Through this project, I want to document “who is today part of the capital of Albania, Tirana, what are their dreams and aspirations and how things have changed in the past fifteen years”.

When I first thought about starting this project, I wanted to focus on those that are being more entrepreneurial and wanting to “drive their own destiny” and are taking things in their own hands rather than waiting from others or the government.

I have here various examples for e.g. “Nji Mar Nji Mrapsht” a shop that promotes ‘artistic creations’, ‘handmade or artisanal’ products. Two brothers that have opened one of the most active and growing bars and social clubs in Tirana, “Hemingway Bar’. A woman entrepreneur that has opened her own early years nursery in a local community, “Kopshti Tulipanet”. Or another creative mama entrepreneur that makes her own organic creams and skin products and has opened her own skincare shop “Soap Arcadia”.

However as the series is about the city of Tirana, it cannot ignore aspects of the built environment that is a significant factor in recent changes and developments of the city.

From an outsiders perspective the city might not seem very asymmetrical but from an insider’s perspective it has significantly outgrown its former boundaries derived from its communist past on many fronts: size and density, use of cars which was almost non-existent for 40 years before 1992, use of concrete massively intensified to conquer every green space or local playground to make space for rising grey towers.

Another aspect of the city that cannot be forgotten is its retired population that longs its boulevards and public benches spending time in public spaces, in a similar way as before, a welcomed sign of familiarity with the past.

Tirana is my hometown, where I was born and grew-up. The city was very different during my first 13 years of life as it was a communist country until 1992. Since then it has been all change and the lifestyle of those that inhabit Tirana today, is all very different. This is a chronicle of the present, not the past, there are other accounts of the past available which make for interesting reading, especially when put next to each other.

This series tells the stories of those captured through the camera and what they told me on the day I took their photos.

Nji Mar, Nji Mrapsht shop

This young girl was a student of engineering, originally from Vlora but living in Tirana and also working part time in a shop that sells handmade and recycled items – Nji Mar, nji Mrapsht which is known by many locals in the area of Rruga e Durresit and Rruga e Kavajes.

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Hemingway Bar and Social Club Tirana

Hemingway Bar and social club in Tirana (Albania), a place of fine taste in interior decor and selection of drinks, with some very old bottles of rum as pointed out by the girl working at the bar there. It is also a place of live music and cultural excursion into the world of a great writer.

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Education and early years childcare

A lovely lady, the manager of the nursery “Tulips” in Tirana (near Rruga e Durresit), a woman entrepreneur who opened this nursery with a passion for children and their early years. My son spent three weeks there as a way to reinforce his Albanian and he was very warmly welcomed by her and her staff.

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Handmade organic skin products and care

Mama and entrepreneur!!! She makes beautiful handmade organic creams, knows tons about skin care, and has a beautiful personality. Her shop is Soap Arcadia and she is a very active member of Tirana’s green, creative and entrepreneur community.

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Retired life and football fan

It is a common thing in Albania for “pensioners” to go to the “centre” of town and spend time there with their friends. I spoke to this man who told me a little bit about his story in the centre of Tirana (opposite is the National History Museum and its large scale socialist realist mosaic).

“I have spent 10 years in retirement, my wife died of cancer and went very quickly, bless her soul. I live with my son, he has a family and they look after me really well, I love my grandchildren and I come here every morning to spend some time outside. My wife and I used to love football and we would go to watch matches together, I miss her. For me now what matters is peace of mind as I don’t work, I don’t have any urgency in my day, it is a quiet life and I enjoy what i can”. Although a bit sad I love his dressing style and his strong personality.

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Reading together, a reading project for vulnerable Roma children

Part of the series “Locals of Tirana” is this set of photos I took during a reading project in Shkoze, to children from the Roma community. Shkoze is an area on the outskirts of Tirana and away from the fashionable centre of the city but these children are part of the cityscape as you can spot them sometimes begging in city centre, they are also part of Tirana, albeit often the “invisible ones”!

As all other children they also enjoy reading and had a great session with these volunteers who make time to read to them every week. “Reading Together: Shkoze” is the name of the project, they have a facebook page and are open to volunteers or donations. The lady who introduced me to this project is an English woman who lives and works between Tirana and Pristina that I knew through her book “The Rubbish Picker’s Wife”, an excellent book and a great introduction into her world of helping marginal communities of Roma and Ashkali on the outskirts of Prishtina, through education, Elizabeth Gowing. She has written four other books and is also a very active member of the charities, cultural and writing community of Tirana.

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Urbanism and citizens, “Superwoman” watching over the city

So much to say about this photo, where to start. My friend in the photo is looking like a real model. The building behind is seen as an ‘eyesore’ to Tirana’s low rise landscape from those living in Tirana but not from those that have some sort of interest in the building, politically or other.

From an outsider’s perspective isn’t this building visually ‘captivating’? I think the two put together give a quick accurate glimpse of the contradictions of a ‘modern city’ growing beyond its ‘means’.

I have shared this image with many friends and connections online and with some mainstream media outlets and the tone of the commentary is so different between what people say and what the ‘independent media’ said.”We need to approach such subjects with caution not to upset the authorities” is the general gist of the later whereas what people clearly say is that it is an abusive building from a public space perspective but also visually, historically and the list goes on. As well as the debate and uncertainty about the actual use and utility of a building that remains empty for the foreseeable future.

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I have published all these photos on my facebook photography page Laura Shimili Mears Photography a page that is public and where you can comment about any of the aspects of this project.

If you would like to take part let me know, I would be delighted to have a chat and take your photographs or if you have people you would like to recommend pease do put them forward.

 

 

Albanian traditional costumes in London

A little photo is up on the blog dedicated to my ‘Albanian culture and traditions’. These girls are wearing Albanian traditional costumes which are very pretty and with vivid colours.

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The Albanian community in London is very organised and there are many groups that organise events regularly, networking events, community days, fundraisers etc. The main groups are Shpresa Programme, Ardhmeria, Nene Tereza, UK Albanian Professionals (this list is not exhaustive). 

There are also Albanian classes for children to learn it as a second language in ‘after school’ or at ‘weekend’ programmes.

Unfortunately we don’t have one such class in our area of South London which is one of the reasons I keep looking for a teacher willing to run a class.

There is interest and I know a number of parents who want to do it but we haven’t yet found a teacher willing to do it. The search continues 🙂

Natural light photography tips

Let me put it out there, I am no definite expert but I have learnt a few things from being around and meeting with professional photographers. Here are some quick tips on how to make the most of natural light in a ‘home’ or ‘outdoors’ environment when taking photos of your children or other people.

I started taking photographs nearly 15 years ago, initially of my friends and people on the street, and then of my children and family friends. Since the beginning of this year I am taking more photographs of other people as a professional photographer and these tips still apply. When I turn up at someone’s house I have to do a quick assessment of the place, where the light source is i.e. windows and where can we ‘set-up’ for the shoot, in terms of light and background.

I am not going to talk here about camera settings as that is another topic that deserves a whole lot of attention in itself and there are countless guides out there about that. I know I have created a few quick ‘go-to’ settings I use on my camera in manual mode – f4 for shallow depth of field and ISO 200 or 400; f5.6 for having more of the subject in focus and ISO 200 or 400 or more for indoor lighting; f11 for anything that is landscapes and where I need the whole scene to be in focus. These set-ups seem to work for me but I do also get it wrong and have to take a few more shots just in case.

In order of importance as others more expert than me say, the psychology of the shoot is the first thing to care about, then you need to define your positioning and lighting and have a few ‘set-up’ scenarios that you can use during the shoot.

1. The psychology of the shoot

Being good at ‘people management’ is the first rule of thumb. Building a good rapport is important as that will allow people to feel at ease and be natural. During this shoot with my friend and her family we spent about one hour together and this photos was taken about half-way through, meaning that by this point everyone was feeling more relaxed and ‘playing the game’.

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2. Positioning

There are countless permutations about positioning and where you could be as you can be anywhere, ready to photograph your subject.

Be ready to capture the natural

With children however being quick to take the shot is key and capturing them in their natural element is the best.

With my son on this shoot I took a few photos from above, while he was lying on the floor and I paused for a bit which is when he put his hands on each side of his face and I ‘caught’ the pose quickly enough before he moved. Priceless!

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Move around and try different positions 

If one position doesn’t seem to work just move around and try a new one. Incorporating the elements from the scene your children are busy playing with also gives more interest to the photo.

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Use the ‘bird’s eye’ perspective

A good one with children as they are little and it is possible but also because they have lovely expressions when capturing them from above.

Clapham photo club meets for the first time with Charlie Round-Turner photographer

Make use of beautiful backgrounds

As simple as that, making the most of flower beds, or trees or any other cute background.

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Clean backgrounds

These are important as they do not distract away from the focus of the photo. If you can, try and move things that are in the way, toys, tables, chairs etc. Or place your subject in front of a clean wall or a use a backdrop if you have, that’s even better.

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3. Lighting or what makes beautiful photographs

Again there are beautiful works of art out there from professional photographers that master the art of lighting in studio or outdoors and use appropriate equipment for that. I love photos from Damien Lovegrove and Julia Boggio.

However lighting is something anyone can use and be aware of no matter what your level of photography is.

In simplistic terms there are a number of elements that you need to care about the most about lighting and that will help you produce better photos.

The quality of light with “soft” light generally being more flattering than “hard” light

However hard light can be used to create dramatic effects.

Lighting on the subject is “soft” when the source of light is near the subject and diffuse in its distribution. For example the light coming from a window. Lighting on the subject is “hard” when the source of light is removed/far from the subject or is a strong “not-covered” single source of light. Think about the sun or a single lighting source above your subject’s head.

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Soft light

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Hard light

The direction of light

This is the direction from which the light falls on to the subject with lighting from the side usually being more flattering for portraits.

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Lighting from above is less so, for .e.g. midday sun is not very flattering and can be harsh.

The Easter egg hunt - was my photography assignment achieved?

However if there isn’t a clear ‘direction of light’, the most important is for the subject to be well lit.

Contrast

Defined as the difference in lighting between the “well lit areas” of the subject and the “not so well lit” ones. The smoother the difference in lighting between these areas, the less contrast will be in the photograph.

A reflector can help reduce contrast or using more than one source of light (which I didn’t have here in this photo and therefore it is a contrasted light).

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4. Your ‘go-to scenarios’ you can use during the shoot

Indoors or a home environment

Use the window as your light source and place your subject next to it.


Shoot in the doorway, that is another great location, as light is interesting.


Increase the ISO settings on your camera to 800 or more and use a wider aperture (f4 for mine or f1.8, f2 for other lenses).

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Outdoors environment

Look at where the light is coming from and try and place your subjects where the light falling into them, is most flattering.

Use sunlight to light the subjects hair from behind, giving the photo a magical hazy effect.

Use natural elements to add interest

Trees or flowers, or long grass anything that makes the place look magical and unique.

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Make use of accessories for your ‘models’

During a maternity shoot we made use of hats to add elements of interest to the photos.

Conclusion – ‘make your photo’ rather than ‘take your photo’

A lot of effort goes into beautiful images, the location, lighting, posing, clothes, emotions so the more of these you use the better your photos will be. But as with anything you don’t need to wait to be perfect before you start you can start from where you are and get better overtime.

As mentioned at the start, these are some quick tips i have learnt along the way, through courses I have attended, a mums photo club I run for a while in Clapham and being a member of the Photographer Academy and the SWWP.

You can start using these tips today to take better photos, using natural light.

Have you found this useful? Do you have any other tips you find useful? I would love to hear from you.

I am linking to Aby’s fabulous Linkylink!

You Baby Me Mummy

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.

 

Evelina

by Evelina Di Lauro

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