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.

 

 

Looking for outdoor maternity shoot? Battersea Park in London is lush

I love Battersea park and I love visiting it in the summer. It’s green and lush and has shaded areas where you can also cool down away from the heat.

We set to do a maternity shoot with this lovely lady, at Battersea Park looking for the beautiful surroundings as a natural background.

Although quite close to the term, this energetic ‘mum-to-be’ was happy to try a few places and walk around wandering in the park.

Here are some of the photos. She was on the way to a wedding and was wearing a beautiful dress that looks stunning but was also comfortable.

Pregnancy is such an amazing time, there is all the excitement about the baby but also all the changes to the body and also to the person, who is starting on a journey to becoming the most special person in the world, to a new being, ‘a mother’.

The precious months of pregnancy go fast, planning a maternity session at a convenient time and at reasonable prices can create those lasting memories that can be cherished forever.


For bookings email

laura.shimili@gmail.com

 

A Syrian Refugee Support Advent Calendar 2016

Chocolate advent calendars are not a tradition in Albania and I haven’t done them neither when I was a student in Paris. So they are a relatively new thing for me. I haven’t yet introduced them to my children and I am not sure I will anytime soon (I know of many grown ups trying to break away from constant chocolate desire).

Instead of the traditional chocolate calendar I have seen other examples of advent calendars with “acts of kindness” each day in December until Christmas day. I like the alternative ideas on the traditional take and I thought that I would write my own advent calendar in support of something that occupies my mind a lot at the moment.

In the face of the “worst humanitarian” crisis in Syria since WW2, I have been having a full range of emotions about the hundreds of thousands of children and people suffering from this dreadful conflict. Feelings going from extreme sadness, to despair, to feeling powerless and guilty and unable do anything to change the situation. I am sure so have felt many other people.

But one morning on the way to work I decided that instead of “feeling bad” and doing nothing, I would do something each day that can help or contribute in alleviating somehow the situation of innocent civilians trapped in a war between extremist factions of a divided society.

So here is my Syrian Refugees Support Advent calendar 2016 with some real examples of things we can do everyday to help a little. The situation is terrible and desperate for millions of people, and having a comfortable and peaceful life, feels like “the best and the worst thing” we could have whilst others cannot have.

https://adventmyfriend.com/25728/6ee72f87e1/

This is my list of actions:

1 – I decided to help Samara’s Aid Appeal, founded by Samara a mother from Brighton, in 2013 to supply Syrian refugees with items of clothing and shoes to keep warm while living in tents in the winter.

2 – I wrote to my MP Rosena Allin-Khan asking her to support the petition to airdrop aid to starved cities in Syria.

3 – I met with another mum from NappyValleyNet (our local online forum) to talk about solutions and doing things together to help refugees

4 – I dropped off our baby clothes and clothes from a friend at the Balham Vineyard Church in response to Samara’s Aid appeal December collection

5 – Attended Samara Levy’s address at the Balham Vineyard church to hear her talk about how she has set up Samara’s Aid Appeal and has done am amazing contribution for the past 3 years to desperate and vulnerable people in Syria and Irak.

6 – Made a donation to a local Syrian refugee fundraising event at the Tooting Tram and Social although we didn’t attend the event (hope it was fun 🙂

7 – Booked tickets to see Vanessa Redgrave film “Sea sorrow” on the refugee crisis at the Battersea Arts Centre. All ticket receipt will go to the UNHCR

8 –  Registered with Wandsworth Welcomes Refugees email address that updates on local initiatives and activities about helping refugees.

9 – Registered with Refugees at Home on Facebook and email address to register my interest to host refugees that could be matched to us in Tooting.

10 – Called the Foreign Office and wrote to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson to support the safe passage of trapped civilians in Eastern Aleppo.

11 – Shared my activity on the NappyValleyNet forum where a number of local mums are discussing the issues around refugee crisis and how we can help.

12 – Made a donation to Syrian Refugees Blanket Fundraiser that is raising funds to buy blankets for Syrian refugees based in Jordan.

13 – Read about the Syrian conflict trying to understand the parties involved and especially who are the rebels and the Western countries foreign policy in the region in the last 20 years.

14 – Had a hard time sleeping after seeing photos of dead babies, and parents following the intensification of the war in Aleppo. I only calmed down after finding peace in sending prayers and thoughts to those affected.

15 – Called the Foreign Office and the Russian Embassy to make my concerns known about the current crisis.

16 – Helped load the lorry of donations for Samara’s Aid Appeal for Syria and Irak, from Balham Vineyard Church. 1200 packages were collected, next round will be in January.

17 – Considered joining a protest at the (empty) Syrian embassy in London but was confused about who was holding it and when (and didn’t go in the end).

18 – Went to the screening of Vanessa Redgrave’s Sea Sorrow with 2 Albanian friends and spoke in the audience and to organisers afterward looking for ways to do something more. This fundraiser raised £1.5k for UNHCR.

19 – Called Caras, a local charity in Tooting working with refugees and asylum seekers to become a volunteer with them.

20 – I called and wrote an email to a local councillor, Candida Jones who organised the Vanessa Redgrave screening at the Battersea Arts Centre about facilitating a mum’s friend application to foster a Syrian child (she was turned away from the council).

21 – Organised a meeting at work to start “Refugee conversations” with refugees and asylum seekers in our work offices to help with English and general social and cultural understanding.

22 – Donated to the DEC Yemen Crisis Appeal

Looking for an inspirational quote to conclude, “the Ripples of Hope” from Robert F. Kennedy seemed appropriate.

“Each time a man (and a woman I hope) stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

The devolution that matters for housing 

I have written another work related post, during the three days I attended the CIH housing conference. 

I have been going to the conference every year apart from last year, when I was heavily pregnant with Elliot. 

This year’s conference was by far the one I enjoyed the most, as I made good use of my time, going into sessions, writing 2 blogs for CIH, one quick news article for Inside Housing, took lots of notes to write other content. I also enjoyed the sessions, had chats with some delegates at the conference, met some of the exhibitors and enjoyed getting to know CIH’s staff in Coventry more. 

Here is the piece on housing and devolution, the hot housing topic in town. 

The devolution that matters for housing

This year’s general election reignited the debate surrounding the devolution of powers away from Westminster. CIH policy and practice officer Laura Shimili shares her thoughts on this divisive topic following Housing 2015’s masterclass session: ‘Is the UK on course for a break-up – and what impact for housing?’.

In recent months, the sealing of the Greater Manchester deal – and other potential city deals to follow in Leeds and Sheffield – has hit the headlines. Devolution has become another ‘hot topic’ and is much debated, perhaps most of all as a result of the Scottish referendum which, despite not achieving its intended objective, managed to give the Scottish independence legitimacy.

Read more

Green spaces for growing urban populations: the legacy of Octavia Hill in London

I can go to work to CIH’s London offices, following two ways, one through Chancery Lane tube and the other through King’s Cross. I like both ways but have a slight preference for the King’s Cross way, as that takes me through St George’s Gardens.

As an Albanian in London, I appreciate urban green spaces. In Tirana, previous parks and small gardens, have been taken up by new tall buildings, housing the growing urban population. Finding that balance between urban growth and maintaining green spaces, is difficult and needs financial means, a lot of good will and determined champions. Octavia Hill was one of those.

Getting from King’s Cross to Grays Inn road, can be done in many ways but the best is through a number of back streets. This is my secret itinerary for Londoners or visitors that want to discover two hidden gems and parts of London’s history.

When Coming out of Kings Cross station, follow Argyle street, then around a pub on to Whidborne street, then cross a little passage on to Harrison street.

The first green oasis you will see, is Regent Square Gardens. The square was once land owned by the Harrison family and used for brick-making in 1700s, subsequently turned into land for building houses, in the 1800s.

After reading the notice board, I learn that the owner of the land, Thomas Harrison, applied to Parliament for an Act granting him permission to build houses in the square, which was received 6 months later. I cannot imagine the frustration of housing associations or other house builders, if they had to go through Parliament, to get planning permission, imagine the ‘red tape’!

Building the houses and keeping the gardens, in what is quite a big amount of land, is great. They benefit everyone, inhabitants and visitors alike.

The second more unusual oasis as you continue, on Sidmouth street and then turn left, when you see a little passage, is St George’s gardens.


This is where the role of Octavia Hill was important. She was the force behind the campaign that pioneered turning disused graveyards, into ‘open air sitting-rooms’ for the poor.

So yes, if you are wondering, these gardens used to be burial grounds, up until the early 1800 but were closed, after becoming overcrowded and falling into a bad state.


I have to say the first time I suddenly found myself in these gardens, I had a strange feeling, walking into a beautiful green space with graves and dead bodies around me. I looked to see that I wasn’t the only one there and was pleased that there were other people. Albanians have a different relation to graveyards, which are often clustered together, away from the city. People pay visits to the graves of their dear ones regularly and cemeteries are the place where the dead and the alive meet, for a short period of time.

So for me, sitting on the grass next to a graveyard, is not something I would have done spontaneously. I have now got used to it and appreciate the trees, the green and calm of the place.


Going back to Octavia Hill, she was a a champion of many things. She was the first ‘housing manager’ at it were, of housing schemes for working people. She was the co-founder of the National Trust, a genius invention that preserves places of historic interest or natural beauty. And the creator of the idea of turning graveyards into urban green spaces. For more, our friends at Derwent Living, housing association have a blog on her. The social housing sector sees Octavia Hill as its direct precursor and value her legacy.

I go sometimes for lunch and sit at one of these benches and although at first the place may seem a bit eerie, it is a good place to rest. And sometimes reflect on the value of history, the pioneering role and valuable contributions to society of exceptional people and how such inspiring actions can be generated and multiplied. Tirana needs a champion of green spaces that is able to save some land from developers’ hands which can be turned into gardens and playgrounds for everyone.

To finish off, some flowers and the lush vegetation in a garden, that is well looked after.

St Georges gardens, near Kings Cross, London