Wednesday, January 30, 2008

All about Albania

Ok, so not really ALL about Albania but it was the catchiest title I could come up with and I need the motivation as:
a. It’s the very end of January and I’m trying to blog more (I think this is going well)
b. I went to Albania over 4 months ago,
c. I owe my rug a backstory, and
d. It’s high time that my act get it together.

Be warned, this is a long post.

The West coast of Albania is lapped by the waters of the Ionian and Adriatic Seas across which lies mainland Italy. From north to south and by way of the east, Albania is wedged in by Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Greece. After 46 years of xenophobic Communist rule ended in the early 90’s, the Albanians set about establishing democracy. The 90’s were a difficult time for Albanians as successive governments endeavoured to deal with unemployment, widespread corruption, a dilapidated physical infrastructure and organised crime networks. Sporadic violence in the face of being one of the poorest countries in Europe led to a large informal economy and a nearly non-existent tourism industry. Mass migration from rural to urban areas has left a huge dent in Albania’s agricultural sustainability and created a mass of unemployed but well educated public. Enough background – Google whatever else you need to know. I was in Tirana for 9 days and although entire days would pass without us seeing daylight we were always out in the evening, schmoozing or just sitting collapsed over plates of pasta. These are just my own observations:

1. Tirana is an interesting city. Its buildings are all mainly squat square communist blocks, built to last. The post communist mayors gave individual buildings money to jazz themselves up, to remove the greyness/ plain-ness and lift the gloom, and as a result many of the buildings have been used as blank canvasses and painted with shapes and bright colours, like a great big city of pieces from different jigsaw puzzles. I really enjoyed this look. It made for interesting walking and comparing the adventure of one building compared to its neighbours. I hear the older generation was most disapproving.

2. There is a long canal that runs through Tirana with a one way road in opposite directions on either side. It’s less canal, more drain with banking slopes on either side of sludge water, dumped garbage and tree saplings. There are thin and quite unsteady looking bridges at various points along the ‘naala’ besides a few proper sized car roads traversing it to allow change of direction. We stayed some way away from the centre of Tirana but along the famous canal and our modest mid-level hotel proudly gave us canal facing rooms. I felt so wanted.

3. Albanian’s love their food and much like Indians they show their affection by trying to feed you large and delicious meals. While their traditional food is very meaty and heavily influenced by various invaders they eat a lot of Italian food. We ate 3 hearty meals a day, and chomped on hot bread from the local bakery while walking between meetings. Food is incredibly cheap compared to here in London and widely available from little street stalls to mid-size restaurants and by the poolside of the few five star establishments. There was a huge fresh vegetable market not far from us, a bit chaotic with yelling sellers and bargaining buyers haggling over piles of fresh colourful fruit and veg. Not like sterile-and-often-touristy Borough market, more like Church Street off Edgeware road but not as much as like an Indian early morning/ late evening subji mandi.

4. Albanians really love Mother Teresa. REALLY. We were invited to the opening of an exhibition of works by different artists to celebrate her life at the national museum. Sadly a work commitment meant that we had to decline. Our hosts were aghast that we refused to change our plans for this event. Needs must I said. Everyone talks about her in tones reserved for talking about something deeply revered like God. Roads, hospitals, schools, universities, museums and an airport among the many things that bear her name. Every Albanian I met was thrilled to be meeting an Indian, wanted to know if I had been to see her work in Calcutta and professed a desire to one day go and see her home away from home. Like a pilgrimage.

5. In our one spare evening we were guided to the shopping area, all along said canal, shoe shop after shoe shop. Interspersed by the odd clothing shop. As in food they are heavily influenced by Italian fashion and every woman no matter what economic status or age is always perfectly turned out with neat clothes, make-up and hair done and wonderful shoes and handbags made of Italian leather. It would have been easy to get carried away in shoe paradise but I limited myself to two comfortable and beautifully crafted pairs of slip-ons. Unlike some other people who bought 10 pairs of shoes.

6. The central square is bound by Italian styled buildings of red brick and yellow paint. Starkly different from the rest of the cities gloomy and uninspiring architecture. Well, it’s not exactly a square, more a large rambling rectangle. Beside the nice buildings there is also the National Museum and Opera House, marked by some fantastic pictoral mosaics. The centre of the square has its token statue and the oldest mosque in Albania (or Europe?). And it’s full of people and whizzing traffic and smog.

7. This brings me neatly on to the traffic situation. It’s chaotic to say the least. There are cabs at various street corners but we did lots of walking between offices and the hotel and restaurants and shops on the somewhat-there sidewalks when not boxed inside the hotel conference rooms. This was to get the limbs moving and to avoid sitting in traffic jams that just like India left the about 0.5 inches between vehicles on any side. When not sitting in still traffic the drivers undertake Formula One racing tactics and drive at break-neck speeds. Like shots from a catapult. I quite enjoyed it, even the heart-in-the-throat-moments.

8. On our one day off we decided to do the touristy thing and take the cable car up the mountains. Tirana is surrounded by hills on 3 sides (from what I could see) and we went up the cable car to the top of one of these. It cost us the equivalent of £2.50 and the swaying but shiny little pods were great, clean and efficient. Only we got to the top and there was nothing but a few restrooms, a café and a great view. Besides other tourists and a man with a horse leading little children around an abandoned parking lot. From the view it’s easy to see how all that migration is causing Tirana to spread quickly into cheap and hastily constructed apartments that are creating suburbia as they grow.

9. On the same trip up and down the cable we saw something that defines the Albanian landscape. The former dictator Hoxha (pronounced Ho-ja) built 600,000 concrete bunkers into Albania’s landscape. Ostensibly built to repel attack each concrete toadstool is large enough for one man and his rifle. Everyone whom I talked to about Albanian history mentioned these and the paranoia they caused amongst a population where there were 4 people for every 1 bunker built, not enough for an attack from the outside and impotent from the enemy within. The bunkers are everywhere, ugly ugly concrete spheres. I only saw them built into the hillside but I hear they exist in the most unexpected of places.

10. Last but definitely not least, it is the people of Albania I want to talk about. Among the group of people I met there was great economic disparity but each person was educated and well-spoken. The common factor between them all was the warmth and welcoming spirit they shared. From the young company Director to the older English teacher, the university researcher to the Psychology student, there was a spirit of optimism and a national pride that was heart-warming. Counting on doing the hard graft for a better future, for themselves, their families and their country. It was a sentiment I have not often heard echoed across such a disparate group.

Albania was a trip of amazing discovery. It’s more ‘Rough Guide’ than ‘Luxury holiday’ but its real, grounded and poised for a future of opportunity. I never thought I would enjoy it as much as I did.

There will be pictures. Soon. I promise.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

This much I know is true

After years at college and working away from home, three-fourth of the way into 1997, I moved back to where my Punjabi heart lies, good old Delhi. To live under my parent’s roof one final time before forging my own. It was a time of recuperation for my mum after an intense illness and all she needed to do was rest. That year that ensued is a bit of a blur in mind as to the sequence of events. What I do remember with amazing clarity is that that was the year my brother and I learnt to juggle work (for me), studies (for him) and household chores (both of us and dad) effectively. Mid-morning every single weekday, while we were at work/ school, my mum would settle herself on the daybed to watch the Oprah Winfrey show. Like a prayer. Everyday.

It helped her in innumerable ways by bringing to life the challenges that a certain set of women on the other side of the world faced. More than anything it gave her something to watch and focus on beside her health and the good cheer and big hopeful stories cheered her up immensely. Even the sad dire wretched stories helped making her count her good fortune at having beaten the illness. For this distraction of Oprah babysitting mum while we needed to be elsewhere I think deep down we were thankful.

I never really got the Oprah bug like my mum did but on the odd day that I watched it I was drawn to the Oprah Book Club recommendations. As part of my ‘loving-lists-scheme’ I would write down the recommendations each time I heard them and patiently over the year compile a list to decide which ones I could afford to buy at the end of the year. I never could afford more than a couple and when I went to buy them they were either unavailable or I got distracted by something shinier or hotter amongst the Indian press and my peers. So many of the ones I wanted to read got left behind.

I eventually misplaced many of the lists but discovered that the internet was a treasure trove of replacements. I also developed an interest in a different genre of books and began making decisions on what to buy based on factors other than ‘popular on somebody’s list’. I think I owned only two of the Oprah list books (bought consciously) but both inspired me in some small way, opened my eyes to an area I had next to no knowledge about.

One of these books was ‘This much I know is true’ by Wally Lamb. It’s a very hard and depressing book about twins Dominic and Thomas Birdsey. Thomas is a paranoid Schizophrenic and Dominick’s life is intrinsically bound with trying to help his brother and cope with the turns his own life take. It moves forward in time over the course of their lives but digs deep into their own ancestral history and the secrets that every person carries to their grave in an attempt to blot out all that is bad. It highlights flaws in places that one would never consider looking and how all their lives are about coping in one way or another. I won’t say it’s the most depressing book I’ve ever read but it’s definitely up there in the top three. I know that so far I haven’t sold this book well. But it wouldn’t be truthful to say this was a book about hope without talking about how horridly awful Dominick’s life is. The reason I so loved this book was how it richly crafted each character is, from the same-but-separate-but-not twins to their timid mother and abusive step-father. It’s a vivid picture of middle twentieth century America and how this man learns to deal with anger, frustration and incredible loss. It’s a book about harshness and loss and kindness and forgiveness and above all acceptance.

I know that makes it sound a bit soppy and wimpy but really it’s not. This is a better review of the nitty gritty of the book. I was at an impressionable age in my life and I think it was one of the defining books of my mid-twenties and made me think long and hard about counting my blessings, facing my fears, limiting my needs and accepting my flaws. It made me consider a lot more seriously the idea of living my life like I mean it. With as few regrets as possible. With gentleness. And that included embedding the constant thought that every action I undertake should ideally lead to a richer and kinder life. And that those two things are not unconnected.

I think this is the year I need to re-read this book.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sweat the small stuff

You know how people often say that New Year is just a celebration and Jan 1st just another day. Well, IT’S NOT. New Years is the chance to celebrate/ mourn the year gone by and the 1st of Jan is the chance to decide/ plan how to mould the year to come into something wonderful/ magnificent (or horrid for the sadists). Beside nursing a hangover, that is. This is not about resolutions (although I am a gung-ho / mighty resolution maker and keeper as you will shortly see). It’s about starting each year as if it will be a bigger better version of the year gone by. Being bigger is seemingly limited only to leap years but being better is up to you.

I’ve started the year in a very positive frame of mind. Last year mourned, this year anticipated. Seeing as I do not want a repeat of last year (although outward indicators like the bookshelf and endless holidays are lovely and wholly appreciated), this January I have decided that I am making small resolutions, all cosmetic bandages that will give the appearance of a better life. And in sweating this small stuff I will stop over-thinking things and making mountains out of molehills. Life is too short to be perennially depressed and this year I WILL NOT BE SO.

The small stuff is mainly inconsequential to the larger picture but I feel will give me a sense of achievement and make me feel good about the appearance of my life. I figure that if the outside looks good the insides will want to join the competition and turn for the better. Or just die and no longer be of consequence. In effect I am deciding to become a more shallow person in order to become a deeper person. Don’t ask.

So the Top 5 outward resolutions that I have decided will help my shallower/ deeper/ extreme self are:
1. Get a haircut, look more presentable, start wearing a bit more make-up. Take pride in how I look, whatever my shape.
2. Wear less black and more colour. Get new happier, less goth/ student wardrobe. And save my sneaker/ trainers only for the gym. Look less like a Hobo. Be the envy of all.
3. Follow through with the cooking more & different, eating better & wiser resolution from my birthday. And stick to the gym. The ultimate Gluttons diet.
4. Read a LOT more. The 33rd birthday is only 6 months away and if I want another bookshelf I better finish everything that’s stacked on the first one. And find suitable place for the second monolith. Display my greedy side.
5. Practice my avatar as a sloth. Sleep more and sleep deeper. Last year for the first time I didn’t sleep as much or as well as the preceeding 31 years (and no it has nothing to do with age). Previously though, if sleeping were an Olympic sport V & I would have been strong contenders for gold. I plan to claim that prize.

And I’m going to blog a lot more. If I write it here I can share my pain/ joy/ despair/ horror/ happiness/ wonder/ stories/ tales/ life.

It helps immeasurably that this is a LEAP year.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


This is the review of a less than good restaurant that I have been meaning to write for ages.

A Japanese restaurant was recommended by a Japanese acquaintance we met at a summer do. Seeing as we love ALL food, and that Japanese features quite high on the ‘loving it’ list we paid apt attention. Blindly thinking that a native of the country would know good food from bad where their national cuisine is concerned V & I finally decided to venture into town on a cold Saturday afternoon in November to try it out.

Matsuri is on High Holborn and is the less swanky sister of the one in Green Park (of which we had heard but not sampled). It’s on a corner plot just down the road from Holborn station and its tall glass walls use this fact by ruthlessly setting up everything inside in glaring light. On a warm summers day this would probably look quite beautiful as the wood and metal interiors could do with being lit up. As it was on the grey day we visited, the interiors seemed too lofty and spare in the dull but fulsome light. The pairing of extraordinarily high ceilings and sparse furnishings make it seem cold, leaving one feeling small and quite clinically like a lab rat. The word clinical is also apt for the service which was appallingly inattentive.

I cannot bear restaurants where the staff behave as if they are doing you a favour. Almost nothing gets my goat in quite the same way. But even that I am willing to put up with in the face of really good nosh. Sadly at Matsuri neither was quite up to the mark. From the rude hostess who claimed that the restaurant was fully booked up (when clearly half of it was empty and remained so for the entire duration of our stay) to the serving staff who could just not be bothered. We eventually got a table and ordered the set meal as it seemed to be better value and include everything on the main menu as an option. The appetizers were not appetizing, just sad non-fresh sushi/ sashimi set on a pretty plate. V’s main meal was organic teriyaki salmon and mine was corn fed chicken teriyaki, both served with rice (which was the only passably well cooked thing the entire meal). The fish and chicken were bland and overcooked, the teriyaki sauce much too sweet to be classified as anything other than dessert, both meals an abomination on Japanese food to say the very least. We have never looked as glum or disheartened at a meal in 2007 (that I can remember). Finally we managed to escape with some sort of autumn discount on weekend lunches which still left it quite pricey. The stand-offish staff and awful food meant that it was not worth even a quarter of what we paid. All this made for a disappointing meal, one of the worst in 2007. I don’t think you could convince me to go back. And I certainly wouldn’t encourage you to go.

I am thoroughly convinced that being native of a country is not the same thing as knowing good food from it.

Matsuri: 71 High Holborn, London WC1V 6EA. Tel: 020 7430 1970

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

I heart Etsy

I've long wanted a lovely desk calender to adorn my workspace, something to bring a smile to my face when I glance away from my computer screen & paper mountains on a busy working day. Bought this from Etsy (which is where I spend all my time and seemingly at LOT of the money earned by sitting at said desk) and it's arrived and looks brilliant perched next to my toy auto rickshaw (which I also heart). The fish in January is more mellow yellow than the orange the screen throws off.

So far I'm loving January.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Holidays: in re-cap

In lieu of any bonus (seeing as I work in the development/ charity sector which has no bonuses) our very small office was given a ten day break from the Saturday before Christmas till the Wednesday after New Years. That’s 4 paid days of leave to compliment the public holidays over and above the generous 25 days of annual leave we get. Needless to say this is the best gift we could have been given. By the time the leave was granted it was too late to book tickets to India and so I made alternate plans that evenly balanced socialising with relaxing.

Christmas was quiet, as always, celebrated with pizza and by camping on the living room floor in anticipation of the ‘every-night-we-must-watch-cricket’. Of course Murphy is so enchanted by me that almost nothing after Christmas went to plan. On the 26th, after a night of disappointing cricket, V woke up to a day of horrid flu – cold, cough, fever, body ache. He recovered quite rapidly and kept his promise by bravely trekking to south London the very next day to eat a fantastic Polish meal in my mate J’s warm and wonderful home. By then V was well on the mend and I was slowly on the way down. Spent the next few days mainly wallowing in self-pity and snot, medicated by Day Nurse and Wagamama meals and trying to decide if we should cancel our New Years do.

By Sunday my mind was made up. We would soldier along. I am nothing if not my mother's child. So I dashed off to the lovely Columbia Road market to get me some bargains while V waited at home for an enormous amount of groceries to arrive. Drank hot hot chocolate and walked around the surprisingly quiet market with my friend E. Bargain bought 100 stems of burnt orange tulips for the house. Was a pain to lug back home I must admit but having them in two giant vases brightened up the teak and green décor immeasurably and made it all worthwhile. We now know we can look quite showroom-like if the need should ever arise.

By Sunday evening I was in full organisation mode. The cold was being treated by endless cups of hot water and the LISTS were coming into their own. I am one of THOSE people, the ones who do best if guided by well planned, detailed lists. The master list consisted of two parts – the guest list and the menu. The menu list was further broken down by ingredients for each food type to be served (and further broken down by what had been ordered online and what needed to be bought from our local supermarket). This was cross-referenced with what each dish required in terms of time planning (i.e. marinate in advance, defrost, take out to breathe, cooking dish, serving dish and implements, accompaniments). V was in charge of the all important alcohol list and the music. With our not-so-big fridge it was a routine as precise as surgery to ensure that food was marinated on time and that these and other pre-prepared goods lived side by side snug as a bug in readiness for the party.

The 31st dawned grey and dreary. My escaped-from-London-for-middle-of-the-countryside friends arrived by mid-day and what a wonderful afternoon we had. We laughed like the drought was over. She brings out the very best in me and I had clearly missed her terribly. Her quiet husband and my quiet V commiserated over the less than thrilling cricket and other lamentable mentionables like Vishwanathan Anand not even getting a mention amongst Indians of 2007 on authority (whatever?) NDTV. We girlies stayed out of it and immersed ourselves in ‘Khoya Khoya Chand’. She stuck with it and continued to relay the important bits of the story to me while I gave up and moved on to the final stages of prep. J arrived early in the evening and wine in hand efficiently helped me pull together final bits in the kitchen. Girlie-girls then got ready in double quick time and by 8.30pm our first guests were arriving and soon the party was in full swing.

What can I say? People kept arriving till about 11pm and I swanned around the kitchen for a bit but mostly sat and stood and chatted with my guests, making sure everyone had something to eat and drink and someone interesting to talk to. 30 people do fill a room and the food seemed to go down well as the crumbs gave testimony to. We had:
Cold eats: crudités & dip/ tortilla chips & salsa guacamole sour cream/ cheese board & grapes
Hot eats: paneer shashlik/ aloo tikki’s/ falafel & hummus/ salmon, sour cream & caviar blinis/ garlic parmesan bread/ chicken tikka’s/ lamb galouti kebabs (which had a mini disaster that the S2 took care of)

Everyone left by about 3.30am and the staying lot settled into sleep by about 4am. V and I tidied up just a bit and then sat down and shared a glass of wine and thoughts about what we wanted 2008 to be like for us. Also called various family around the world and finally gave into sleep at around 5am. The 1st was spent with friends and old movie watching. A sublime day if it must be described, lazy and happy, like the rest of the year I hope. By the time everyone left it was nearly 6pm. V and I gave into the exhaustion fairly early and before I knew it morning and work beckoned. A pared down office made it an easy first day back but by the end of the day I was flagging and ended up spending the remainder of the week down and out with a recurrence of flu.

This week it’s back to work full swing. Aaarrrrggghhhh.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Keeping up Appearances: 2007 reflections & 2008 hopes

Happy New Year!

If you were watching from the outside 2007 worked like a dream for me. A great job, exemplary new friends, much travel, a home beautification project, good food (and lots of it), the motivation to stay with the gym and finally, mostly healthy yet always endlessly loving families to boot. I really should not be complaining.

But although on its surface 2007 was an exemplary year in reality it’s the year I have least liked in this entire decade. The one I most want to forget. This is not an easy thing to explain. In many ways and on most days this year I have felt some level of frustration, anger, anxiety and sadness. It’s been a bit like being on a scary fairground carousel that slows down but never quite stops to let you off. I have felt sadness like never before and for no real singular reason. And not deep dark bouts of dreary depressing sadness but nonetheless there, spread just under the surface of my skin, manifesting as occasional pins and needles. I don’t explain it well. But I have thought long and hard about it during this 10 day break and talked at poor V till I think I know it’s ins and outs. Had long e-mail banters and conversations with two of my best buddies from school, people who know me well enough to deal with any crisis, who dealt with mine lovingly and firmly. I feel calmer and brighter and more hopeful than I have in a long long while. I’ve decided for the purposes of this blog that I don’t want to dwell on it at all. Just note it so I never forget how happy I am to be leaving 2007 behind.

I do take away two things I am utterly proud of in 2007. One of them is not losing my motivation for the gym. I owe some of this to a latent will-power that seems to have blossomed late in life but most of it to V who smiles, encourages, gently prods and keeps pace with me. 73 weeks on I am still going with as much cheer and hope as I can possibly muster. As for the waking up before sunrise to do so, that is something only my dad can truly appreciate.

The other is managing to make and keep a few birthday resolutions. The one about eating new exciting food by and finding my lost love of cooking new things has worked well. I have a few gorgeous new cookbooks and while I experiment on V and myself each week, I also put them to good use catering for our New Years party where for the first time ever I made ALL the hot snacks instead of ordering in. I didn’t lose the 15 kilo’s I resolved to but I guess I need something to do in 2008. The final and hardest resolution I made was about cutting out people from my life who were clearly in it for their benefit alone. It was one of the hardest things to do and has been done so subtly that I am sure many of those people have not even realized it. But make no mistake I have done it and in some small measure I feel better and brighter for having the gumption to finally take control of my life. I know I am truly richer for it.

We are no longer keeping up appearances. Of either the weight kind or the people kind.

Bring it on 2008.