Tag Archives: Albania

This is my story on UCB2

11 Jul

I talked to Ruth O’Reilly-Smith on her radio show, ‘This is My Story’, on Tuesday morning about my novel, Leda, why I went to Albania, and what I’m up to these days with Restore Glasgow.

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Interrail day eighteen – Lushnjë again

15 May

Another day in a small, quiet town. I hope this isn’t too boring for you. After the excitement of the UK almost winning Eurovision, maybe we need something a little quiet!

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Make a little birdhouse in your soul

22 Jun

Although it pales in comparison to all the other horror and tragedy in the world, I had a little loss of my own this week. My budgie Roland died at the not very advanced age of four years. He had been sick for a while with what turned out out to be a liver complaint and died at the weekend, whether from the liver problem or from the stress of being medicated for the liver problem, who can say? (Death from stress is a common problem with birds and small animals in general – apparently the trick is to get them happy taking fluid from a syringe before they ever get ill. Something to remember for next time.) But this is not a sad post – I thought this was a good time to introduce you to the birds who have shared my life. They each had their own unique personality and colouring, kept me company in lonely times and cheered up the house. You can keep your cats and dogs; give me a bird any day.

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I like pretty women, I like good wine

3 Sep

And extra marks to the person who gets that obscure song reference.*

The title alludes to the fact that my piece on Albanian wine has been published in Wine Tourist Magazine, so you can make yourself very jealous reading about what I did with my summer / educate yourself about Albanian wine varieties and history (delete as appropriate).

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Europe’s Forgotten Hero

25 Apr

Statue of Skanderbeg in Tirana

I’ve got an article in the May edition of History Today magazine. This is exciting because it’s a new ‘market’ for me, but also because the article is about Skanderbeg – someone I think more people should have heard of.

It’s easy to assume that Albania’s national hero, a medieval warlord, was always an obscure figure. Albania is a small country, after all, and has often being under foreign domination to boot. The genesis of this article came about when I visited the National History Museum in Tirana and saw a display of old books about Skanderbeg – not in Albanian, but in Italian, German, English, French… Clearly, there had been a time when Skanderbeg (or Skenderbeu in Albanian) was a lot better known. So, years later, when I found out 2018 was the ‘Year of Skanderbeg’, I finally looked into it, and wrote the article.

If you’re interested in Skanderbeg, and want to know about the sources I used, use the ‘Get in touch’ form on the right. Otherwise, simply rush out and buy the magazine. It will be in shops shortly, if it’s not already, and it’s the edition with the bright blue cover and a picture of a very creepy looking mermaid with oversized ears. You can also read the article online.

I’ve got a couple of articles coming up in Christianity Magazine, too, so I’ll blog about them in due course. In the meantime, I need to get on with the work in progress, The Sarcophagus Scroll, which is getting tantalisingly close to the magic 50,000 words at which you can indisputably call it a novel. Better not leave it at 50,000 words, though, since we still don’t know whodunnit or why 😉


Read an Ebook Week 2018

5 Mar

March 4th to 10th is Read an Ebook Week, so all my ebooks are free on Smashwords.

The books included are:

That doesn’t include Patrick of Ireland: The Boy Who Forgave or Augustine: The Truth Seeker because they are from a different publisher – but if you really want them, you can probably stretch to six quid, right? If not, petition your local library to stock them, if it doesn’t already.

Life’s a Beach

14 Aug

I’m not long back from my latest excursion to Albania. I didn’t spend as long as usual this time, just the three weeks (I know, your heart bleeds), but I did find some time to get away to the beach while I was there, and thought I would give a quick impression of the differences between British beaches and Albanian ones (or Mediterranean ones more generally). If you’ve spent time at both and know all this already, feel free to skip, but if you’ve never experienced the sweaty hedonism of a Mediterranean beach, or the chilly exhilaration of a British beach, read on.


This was the thing that got me thinking about the differences to start with. I was lying on my lounger (of which more later) in Spille, reading This Must Be the Place, when I heard what I thought was a seagull crying. In Scotland, this sound is so ubiquitous at the coast, and even in cities, that you don’t register it, but when I heard it on that beach I suddenly realised it was the first one I’d heard. So I looked up to see – a man selling squeezy horns for kids to play with, along with other toys and games.

A seagull doing its thing

In Scotland, and the rest of the UK, seagulls hang above the seaside like stringless kites, ready to dive-bomb anyone who is too careless with their chips. At Spille, the avian background music was provided by peaceful wood pigeons, or duduftu (brilliant piece of onomatopoeia).*


If you harbour dreams of being waited on hand and foot, or fondly imagine that you were Cleopatra in a former life, Albanian beaches might be for you. You can turn up with just your towel and your swimsuit, and people will come round selling you everything else you need, including on beaches where this is explicitly prohibited. Here are some of the items that will come to you, if you wait long enough:

  • Doughnuts
  • Playing cards
  • Novelty horns (see above)
  • Newspapers
  • Bananas
  • Cold(ish) drinks
  • Sets of dominoes
  • Candy floss
  • Inflatables
  • Buckets and spades
  • Corn on the cob

Some of the more touristy beaches even have massage and hair braiding. No one seems to sell novels though, so bring your beach read with you. In Britain for sale actually on the beach you will find:

  • Donkey rides

And that’s about it. That’s not to say you won’t find plenty to eat and drink and amuse yourself near the beach, but there’s pretty much nothing on it. There’s a reason for that, and it’s the same reason that lies behind point 3:

Sun loungers

Shezllone in this picture is not the name of a place, it is the Albanian word for sun lounger, which they have clearly borrowed from the French. (Say it out loud and see if you can work it out.)**

Albanian beaches, and Mediterranean beaches in general, are covered with pairs of sun loungers arranged in neat rows, usually with an umbrella complete with mini table. There are obvious advantages to this system: you don’t get nearly as sandy, the sand doesn’t blow over you, you’ve got shade without having to hoik an umbrella around with you, you’ve got somewhere to put your drink and hang your clothes, etc.

The disadvantage is that these loungers belong to someone, usually to the adjoining beachfront hotel or café, and you have to pay to use them. If you don’t want to, you’ll struggle to find an unused bit of beach to lay your towel on. Being a bit lazy, especially when it comes to carrying things in hot climates, I like the shezllone system, but I understand why it wouldn’t work in Britain. Even if we did have enough hot weather to justify permanent beach furniture, there’s a very good reason why nothing is left on the beach overnight, which is…


On our second day in Spille, it was very windy (though still hot) and this meant that the sea was full of waves. My mother-in-law thought that made it very unsuitable for swimming and was a bit concerned when I went in, but for me it brought back memories of holidays as a kid, jumping over small waves and body-surfing the big ones (and ending up with lots of salt water in my nose). This is because the coast in Britain is full of waves all the time, whether it’s windy or not, because we have tides.

It’s one of those things that feels unrealistic, like the water running down the plughole in the opposite direction in Australia (allegedly; I’ve never been). When you’ve grown up with a sea that advances and withdraws by hundreds of yards twice a day, it just doesn’t feel safe to leave your sandals right next to the water, even though you know they’ll be just where you left them when you come out. I have a vivid memory of seeing my clothing float past me at Southport, even though we had all left our clothes way up the beach. It’s hard to get used to the calm, stationary Mediterranean, with its more-or-less stationary waterline.

It’s easy to get used to warmth, though. Sometimes even the Mediterranean seems too cold to me these days, and I grew up paddling in the Atlantic, and even went swimming in the North Sea at five in the morning. I have become nesh.


My final observation is really a reflection of wider Albanian culture, not just beach culture. Kids go everywhere, at every time of day. There were kids on the beach in the blazing heat of noonday. If they got crotchety (as you would expect) the solution was to put them down for a nap, tucked under a sheet – on a sun lounger in the blazing heat of noonday. This would not be recommended practice in Britain, to say the least.

But kids go everywhere and sleep anywhere in Albania – including music concerts. In the photo above you may be able to see small children and babes in arms at the Maratona e Këngës (Song Marathon), which started at nine in the evening. “Are all the bairnies in their beds? It’s past eight o’ clock” does not ring true in Albania. In theory they should all be suffering terrible developmental problems due to the haphazard sleeping patterns, irregular meals, excessive exposure to TV etc. But in reality they seem to turn out fine, so maybe they’re doing something right.

Anyway, now it’s back to late summer in Scotland for me, which in practice means cold and rain. It’s been excessively hot on the Continent and, as is often the case when that happens, it’s been unusually cold and miserable here. So no one will see my beautiful tan because I’m wrapped up from head to toe all the time. But if you bump into me, do feel free to compliment me on my wonderfully bronzed hands 😉


*  Please don’t give me any of that rubbish about seagulls not being a real thing. They’re gulls. They live by the sea. They’re seagulls, alright?

** Chaises longues

Learning about Albania

4 Oct

The results of the vote are in, and it was unanimous – all three of my readers want to hear about my summer in Albania rather than my adorable budgie or the wonders of digestive enzymes.

I’ve written about Albania before, more than once, and I don’t want to repeat myself or bore you, so I’ll break this down into things you see in Albania that you don’t see in Britain; things you don’t see in Albania that you do see in Britain; and things you, perhaps surprisingly, see in both. The summer feels like a long time ago now, but luckily for you, I kept notes 😉

Things you see in Albania20160812_084248

Goat droppings on the pavement. Our neighbour keeps goats, and walks them out to pasture every morning, and back every evening. They try to eat everything en route, but unfortunately their owner doesn’t take them close enough to our gate to eat the weeds growing there.

Kids out late. I may have mentioned this before, but Albanian children stay up very late. Finding a babysitter is a complete non-issue because the kids just come out with you, even in their buggies. They do take naps during the day, but I can’t help thinking that, cultural diversity aside, keeping kids up as long as adults is not an entirely good thing: they often look tired and act crabby. The idea of “Are all the bairnies in their beds? It’s past eight o’ clock” is just totally alien in Albania, however.

Mobile phone shops running out of sims. This one was quite annoying. All the mobile phone shops are company-specific – you don’t have the likes or Carphone Warehouse or Fones4U – but even so, you’d expect them to have sim cards at all times, right? Or at least to be quite embarrassed about not having any. But no: “We don’t have any sim cards just now. Come back on Monday.” Fortunately, all the mobile phone companies were doing a big push to sell sims to the emigrants returned for the holidays, so there were plenty of other companies to get a sim from. One company even had a buy one, get one free offer on every sim purchase (why?) so I ended up with a surfeit of sims.

Things you don’t see in Albania

Dogs being walked. This isn’t because there aren’t any dogs in Albania, but because the three types you generally see are stray dogs (far fewer than there used to be), guard dogs, which are usually chained up and always stay in the grounds of the house they are protecting, and – a new addition – handbag dogs, which are carried around in people’s arms. I don’t believe I have ever seen a dog out for a walk in Albania, on a lead or just at heel. I have been rather too close for comfort to a guard dog, though. Our relatives’ dog, Çufi, dreams of sinking his teeth into my sweet flesh, and this time he almost managed it, before my mother-in-law slammed the gate shut. My scream could be heard throughout the neighbourhood.


Drunk people at beer festivals. I didn’t even notice this until the third or fourth day of the beer festival in Lushnje. There was only one type of beer (it was really a “friendship festival” sponsored by Elbar beer) and everyone just got a pint, or a soft drink for the kids, and maybe something to eat, and sat listening to the music and chatting. No one got drunk. No one. There’s not a lot of public drunkenness in Albania anyway, except at weddings, but it was strange to be at an alcohol festival where no one was drinking to excess. Imagine that in Glasgow!

(Personally I’m not a fan of beer, so I took the opportunity to introduce Albania to the concept of shandy. I don’t think it’s going to take off.)

Things you, surprisingly, do see in Albania

Cycle lanes. I remember while I was preparing for my DPSI exam a couple of years ago discussing the best way to say ‘cycle lane’, as it was something I had never come across in Albania. Now the centre of Lushnje has a cycle lane running right through it and, what is more, people were using it! In fact the whole of the central square has been made a no-car zone, and it’s lovely. (You can spot the red cycle lane in the photo above.)

Toffee apples. I associate these with frosty nights, Hallowe’en and bonfires, rather than with sultry Mediterranean evenings, but I don’t suppose there’s any good reason why Albania shouldn’t enjoy them just as much as we do. (I use ‘we’ in a generic sense – I hate fruit.)

Fried pizza. I thought this was purely a Scottish institution (served with chips, of course, because a deep-fried pizza doesn’t contain enough grease), but I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised that such a delicacy also exists in Albania; they are awfully fond of frying things, often in gallons of oil.

I always seem to learn something new when I go to Albania, and usually not just about the cuisine. The rigmarole over the water supply in our house in Lushnje (two pumps in two different, locked locations, a valve on the roof and a stopcock half-buried in the yard – not fun) gave me a greater appreciation of the running water system we have here. In fact, our street might get proper running water before next summer, which would be wonderful!

I also learned to hold my possessions a bit more lightly. That’s already wearing off, since I live in a society where ownership is very clearly demarcated and closely guarded, but I do appreciate the Albanian willingness to lend and share, and not to care too much when something is lost or broken.

I was also reminded of the value of boredom. There’s a lot of waiting around in Albania; it’s just part of life. In the summer there are also times when it’s too hot to do anything, too hot even to sleep, so you just lie around. After a while, a bit of boredom opens up areas of your mind that lie dormant when you’re constantly busy or entertained, and that’s a good thing, especially if you work in a creative field. As well as getting on with the novel I’m working on (The Gates of Janus), I polished off a wee short story while I was there as well, which might not have happened if I didn’t have a lot of time just staring into the distance and dreaming.

So there’s your annual report on Albania. I can’t promise not to bore you about my budgie in future, but if you’re lucky something might occur to me that is interesting to a slightly wider audience 😉

A new decoration in Lushnje's park

The opposite of writer’s block

5 Sep

As usual I have to apologise for not writing  a new blog post for ages, but unusually the excuse is not just that I’ve been insanely busy (which I have) but also that I don’t know what to write about – or more accurately, I don’t know which thing to write about.

I have jotted down a few ideas for posts (I do this – I have an extremely rubbish working memory, so scraps of paper and memos on my phone serve as an alternative) but don’t want to write about all of them (if I wrote three posts in a week you might worry that I’d been replaced by the body snatchers!) and if I try to space them out over the next several weeks I’ll forget, or they will be out of date, or something else will come up.

So it’s over to you, patient readers who have just slogged your way through two one-sentence paragraphs. Do you want to read about my summer in Greece and Albania, with reflections on different culture, the changing face of Albania, and possibly language learning? Or would you prefer to hear about my beautiful new budgie, Gatsby? (I may become a bit of budgie bore, I’m afraid. He’s so cute!) Or would you like to hear about lactase? No, I’ll not tell you any more; if you’re intrigued, vote for it.

The survey should be showing below. (If it’s not, click here.) I look forward to getting my writing orders!

Albania 2015 – just the best bits

8 Aug

I have recently returned from my other reality, aka Albania, where I have a different name, a different language, different clothes (well it is 20 degrees hotter) and to some extent a different personality. I was going to blog about how strange it is to suddenly be bad at things that you are usually good at – things like baking, dancing and writing, in my case – because you’re in a different culture where all the rules are changed.

However, I feel like I have encountered quite enough negativity recently, with people talking down Albania, or Scotland, or just generally moaning about how hard life is, so I don’t want to add to it. However hard life is, and whatever problems there are in both my countries, I had a fantastic month, so I will choose the share the best parts. If that makes you nauseous, look away now.

1. I went to a museum in Lushnjë where I was the only person there, so I got a personal guided tour, and unlike most museums where you are told very firmly not to touch, this museum positively encourages you to! I was handed a two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old perfume pot (which I took extreme care not to drop) as if it were just a mug of coffee, and the tour guide passed me an 18th century sword to hold while he took a phone call. For a history nut like me, it was amazing!


Look at the colour of that sea!

2. The sea was beautiful, and so different from the North Sea and the Atlantic that I grew up with. It’s so clear you can see the tiny fish, and it’s warm (or no colder than cool, at worst) so you can get right in there without fear of losing a toe to frostbite. My eyes are the colour of the sea and, bizarrely, while they are North Sea blue-grey here in Scotland, they were Mediterranean blue-green the entire time I was in Albania.

3. Being outdoors so much was great. I like being outdoors in Scotland, too, but there are not that many days you can do it without suffering from mild exposure, if not from the temperature then from the wind. In Albania (and Greece) we ate outside (breakfast, lunch and supper), socialised outside, went to outdoor bars, and I even slept outside, on the balcony outside my room, when the temperature got a bit too ridiculous. Waking up to blue sky and swallows overhead sets you up for a great day.


My bed on the balcony

4. My husband gets irritated by this one, but I love being mistaken for an Albanian! I talk with an accent of course, but millions of Albanians live abroad, so they pick up accents too. Sometimes people have a little debate in front of me about whether I’m foreign or not! It’s very funny, and quite reassuring when I have an Albanian exam coming up later this year.

5. I enjoyed bonding with my mother-in-law over telenovele, the überdramatic soap operas they show in Albania. They used to be mainly from South America, but now there’s a glut of Turkish ones, which are a bit more serious, and very good. The latest was Diamantë dhe Dashuri (Diamonds and Love). There’s lots of mortal peril and complicated love triangles / hexagons, and I am happy to throw myself right in there for as long as I’m staying. They also don’t go on forever, like British soap operas, so you’re not in danger of losing your whole life to them.

6. I also enjoyed dressing up. This can be a hassle if you’re not in the right mood, but I was on holiday so I was very happy to only take my prettiest clothes, and then to wear all the new pretty clothes that my mother-in-law had collected for me too. Most of the time in Britain I slob around in jeans and a t-shirt, so it’s fun to take a break from that and wear heels and dresses. I didn’t wear trousers for the entire holiday, and it was with great reluctance that I put them back on for the flight home.

7. The ice cream was so cheap! Lots of things are cheaper in Albania, but ice cream is so expensive here in Britain that it’s really noticeable. In Albania it ranged from about 30p for a cheap one to £1.30 for an individual tub of Skandal, the equivalent of Häagen Dazs. My young nieces, who accompanied me for the first part of the holiday, weren’t used to the heat so I insisted that we stabilised their temperature with regular applications of ice cream. They didn’t seem to mind.

8. Catching up with friends was a highlight – and not just friends in Albania, but those in Greece and Italy too! Because almost everyone in Albania has relatives abroad, standard mobile phone packages include overseas minutes. For about £8 for the whole month I got hundreds of minutes to Europe, as well as huge amounts of data and messages. Not bad.

9. This one is from Greece rather than Albania. I stayed in a hotel with a pool on my way back, since I had to spend a night in Corfu. (It was the Anita, in case you’re interested, and it’s very good and extremely friendly, though not as handy for the airport as the Arion.) One of my favourite memories is standing up to my neck in the pool, alone, watching brightly coloured dragonflies playing over the water. Idyllic.

Sunny enough for bananas!

Sunny enough for bananas!

10. Sunshine. Sorry, but it has to be said. In Scotland we throw ourselves onto the nearest patch of grass whenever the sun comes out, because who knows how long it will last? In Albania you can predict that it will last roughly from the start of May to the end of September. It was sunny every day, it was hot every day, it was cloudless all but two days. It was paradise.

My mother-in-law will hopefully be visiting in October, her first time in Scotland, so it will be interesting to get her perspective. Maybe she will see wonderful things that I don’t notice because I’m so used to them. I have a nasty feeling that she won’t like it at all, actually, but until she casts her verdict – let’s stay positive. 🙂