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 🙂

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.

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.

 

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.

Albanian traditional costumes at the British museum

My ‘photo a day’ project has slowed down (quite considerably given that I haven’t posted a photo a day for the last two weeks) and instead of posting every day I will be posting photos that I take when I can.

Doing such a project should be fun and not stressful so I will not be harsh on myself. If I cannot do it every day that means I cannot do it and will perhaps start again when I will have a bit more time (when is that likely to be? 🙂

In the meantime I will continue my photography work, posting on the blog and writing about other things that I do as usual.

So this post and the photos are from a day of celebrations for the Albanian Independence Day which is on 28 November 1912. So this year was Albania’s 101 year of being independent from the Ottoman Empire. Albania became independent later than its neighbors as it was particularly difficult for my country to organize a strong opposition to the ottomans but also to territorial ambitions and plans from its neighbors in alliance with the big powers of the time (Russia, Austro-Hungary, France, Britain, Italy) to divide Albania between its neighbors.

But as a typical fairy tale (really?) it all ended well and our patriots declared the independence in the southern city of Vlora. The actual borders were not definitive until 1920 and in actual fact Albania lost significant territory in the south to Greece, east to Macedonia, north to Montenegro and most importantly all of Kosovo, to Serbia. That’s why as weird as this may be Albania is the only country (in the world?) that is surrounded by Albanian populations on all of its borders.

That is history and on to the present modern day, Albanians celebrate this important national day quite pompously in Albania and in different ways in other countries where Albanian communities live.

The Albanian community in London organised many celebrations, lead by the different community groups such as Shpresa programme, Nene Teresa, Ardhmeria etc. The one we went to was organised by Ardhmeria in collaboration with the Albanian ambassador in the UK. The author of a book about the war in Kosovo was also invited and presented his book ‘Flying with kites’ which can be bought on amazon for those wanting to learn more about the conflict.

And finally the photos I took of beautiful Albanians that live in London wearing Albanian traditional costumes. But also of other people attending the celebrations.

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20131217-143341.jpgI have posted these photos on Facebook before so they will not be new for my friends there. I wanted to share them on the blog too with other blog friends.

Let me know what you think.

Holiday plans: where to relax on the Albanian riviera, Drimadhes beach bar

If you have never been to Albania think again. It is an ‘awakening sleeping beauty’ (Lonely Planet words) that has everything to impress, beautiful secluded beaches with crystal blue waters, dramatic landscapes with high peak mountain raising up behind beaches, rich culture and old history and great food at amazing prices.

Albanian Ionian coast from the peak of Mountain of Llogara

While British and other European tourists continue to be chartered to neighbouring Corfu, Albania’s tourism remains exclusive to foreign tourists who love uncharted waters and to Albanian nationals living in other countries.

So if you are part of the lucky ones I would recommend you go to one of the best beaches on the southern coast, Drimadhes beach and to one of the best bars there, that keeps playing some awesome music. The once called ‘Dar bar’ but recently renamed ‘Drimadhes beach’ bar. The bar is now part of the same company that owns Drimadhes Inn nearby, a complex with cabins, a restaurant and swimming pool.

‘Dar bar’ was one of the first bars to open some 8 years ago when the whole bay was empty and undeveloped. It continues to be a cool place to go for a late afternoon beer or mohito, just in time to catch red sunsets over the sea.

Sunset from Drimadhes beach, South of Albania

What makes this place special is the Lounge and Chill music played during the day, with sounds from Londinium, CocoRosie or Bjork. In the evening Albi, a singer plays live music and at weekends DJs are invited.

The position of the bar right by the sea and a number of sun chairs and beds on the beach add charm to the place.

Drimadhes Beach Bar, Southern Albania

I have time to speak to Bledi Mone who in between making coffee and fixing the wifi talks about his biggest passion, windsurfing. Windsurfing is not a very popular sport in Albania so seeing someone on the beach doing it is rare. Bledi boasts abut his skills, which I witnessed on a very windy day when he managed to come back against very strong winds.

Drimadhes Beach Bar

Bledi originally from Fier, was first initiated to windsurfing while working in Greece, by a group of Australian tourists. He continues to practice and wants to make it more popular in Albania with groups of young people and adults, wanting to learn. But it is still early days and while Bledi practices his passion, he still has to make a living. While he speaks about going to very remote corners of the coast where not many people have been and being caught at sea by storms, other people around the bar listen, impressed.

Bledi Mone on his windsurf

So how are things going with the bar, I ask Bledi. ‘This summer was good’ he says, ‘more people have visited the area’. ‘At the same time competition has become tougher as many other bars and restaurants have opened’.

But Bledi and his colleagues remain upbeat. Whatever happens people will always come to this bar, to have a moment of peace and unwind from busy lives.

September is considered past the season in Albania and most places will close down until next summer. Drimadhes bar is still going and although the weather wasn’t great, a Saturday morning a number of visitors arrived at the bar parking their cars with Kosovo plates, nearby. They had travelled a long way to come to this place for the weekend. ‘We love it here’, says a mother of two little boys, who are having fun playing in the waves. ‘Despite the long journey, the climate here is good, for the children and for us’.

At the beach in Southern Albania

In the morning not much happens, people sip their expressos while contemplating the sea and chilling with the waves of ‘Cafe del mar’ beats. The afternoon becomes more animated and in the evenings I am told, in high season it is party time. Albanians can be very expressive with their dancing and partying style, wearing minimal dresses and high heals and enjoying a good old dancing on the bar. Spontaneous parties can make a breakthrough during a hot afternoon and part of the enjoyment is spraying with beer and water over bodies barely clothed in bikinis and shorts. This has come to be called the Albanian Mallorca ‘partying style’.

‘We have that here as well’, says another waiter smiling, while he serves coffee.

Having gone to Drimadhes in September, outside the season I didn’t witness the hot fiestas but had a great chilling out time at Drimadhes beach bar.

Relaxing by the beach in Southern Albania

I would invite you all to put this place in your diaries for your next year’s adventures. This place is only the first in line on the southern coast of Albania and is followed by many more similarly impressive beaches and local villages, so if you want to discover more there is plenty.

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Evelina

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