Back to Basics: Farming in the Balkans

On a soggy Thursday morning train ride, I began to think about how dependent on technology we’ve become. I couldn’t fathom how people spent their time before the invention screens. Looking around the carriage I attempted to make eye contact  with other passengers, a futile attempt to break the well-rehearsed urban solitude of London. Rows of people played on their phones, themselves surrounded by more people playing tapping away at screens and keyboards. What would life be like without constant distraction? No screens. No radio. No electricity. There was only one way to find out…

Albania was once the North Korea of Europe – her borders: closed, food shortages: rife, penalties for those caught trying to escape: severe. But that was 20 years ago, and a lot can change in two decades. A lot.

The Southern European country is fast becoming an Adriatic clone of Benidorm. England has the white cliffs of Dover, Albania has the white sea-front high rises of Sarande. The EU hopeful is a popular hotspot for playful Russians to relax – clambering over one another to display their moderate wealth, splashing around in crystal clear waters by sandy beaches, cocktail in hand.

But for every Martini shaken there is a family living to the most basic of standards. Albania is very much a two-sided coin. In flash tourist resorts streets are lined with fashionable 4×4‘s, they sit uncomfortably next to rural farming villages where the passing of the daily bus to town is a monumental event. What better place to go ‘back to basics’.

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I stepped back in time with the Hoxha family – they’ve worked the same patch of land for more years than anyone cares to remember. The cultivation of figs, olives and a brood of chickens is their main source of income.

I’m told during the “troubled years” when all the country’s farmers worked for the state as a collective for a ‘Greater Albania’, things were even harder than they are now. Families scraped by on what produce they were allowed to keep, the rest of their food was trucked away to the capital Tirana. In a spooky tip toward a Suzanne Collins novel the districts fed the capital – and decades on it still shows. Tirana is like any other developing city with its busy streets and hectic traffic. The countryside is an altogether different game.

The corrugated iron roof of the Hoxha’s home jars against the towering mountains behind bordering the disputed region of Kosovo. The family of seven live without electric, water is collected twice a day from a well in the garden, and the toilet – you guessed it – is a hole in the ground. It’s basic but comfortable-ish. What money they do have is made from hosting backpackers on a quest to find themselves far from their widescreen TVs and double beds.

It’s a sobering sight to see three generations of the same family ploughing the land by hand – their Ox died several years back, the poor jobs market means they haven’t got the money to replace him. 

Ardi, the middle of three children, is an ambitious 23-year-old. He’s spending the summer at home after studying English in Bucharest, and is keen to be my guide for the few days I’ll be spending with his family. He says it’s to practice his English, but I get the feeling it’s more to do with not having to work the fields under the searing Mediterranean sun. Apart from work, there isn’t a great deal to do here. The Hoxha’s – like most rural Albanians – have no access to the internet, no television and trying to tune a radio here would need an ariel reaching far into the sky. They live a life in the modern world,  suspended from its pleasures by mountains and fields.

“It’s hard work here, but it’s the way we do things. It’s the way they’ve always been done, and I think it’s going to take a lot to change that” Ardi told me.

I watch as his grandmother lifts an overfilled basket of olives from the ground and pours them into a rusty wheelbarrow.

Grandmother Hoxha

“My family have been here for generations. I don’t want to stay here but my brothers do. We’re very proud as a people, you’re Albanian first, and everything else comes after that. We’re too proud to change our way of life, even if it makes things easier.”

Inside the house, there are six rooms. The kitchen lacks even a sniffle of ‘wow factor’ – a time-worn Italian-esque wood-burner blasts out heat and smoke into the room (I’d later try and fail to make toast on this). Three bedrooms lead away from a modest living room, its main feature: shabby looking chairs surrounding a wooden table. The only thing reminding me of home is the ‘junk room’ – a fad that seems to consume most families – I found it slightly reassuring to know that even this family, one of the poorest in the valley, have some ramshackle bikes and a rusty bucket to clutter their home.

The first night with the Hoxha’s was an eye-opening experience. It got dark much quicker than I’d anticipated – by 7pm we were sat in total darkness, the birds had stopped tweeting, I missed social media myself.

To the sound of wild dogs howling we chatted by the light of the warm fire, not a bar of phone signal for 20 miles. We played music on homemade instruments and exchanged stories about our various travels. I learnt how to swear in Albanian from Ardi’s Grandmother – for a woman in her later 70’s she had a vocabulary to be enviable of.

It must have been around 9pm when the Raki, a spirit made from crushed grape skins, was opened. There is no disagreeing that Albanians give the best hospitality in the Balkans: several shots of the acrid, bitter spirit sealed this in my mind.

The next few days and nights were spent ploughing fields by hand – turns out I’m a dab hand at this – trimming olive bushes and spending time talking to one another using my muddied Albanian. Here older people don’t speak a great deal of English; during the Cold War allegiances swung between Communist USSR and China. You’re more likely to find a 70-year-old with basic Mandarin than you are one with English on their side.

I often found myself having the worst of all modern day panics – where is my phone? Has it been stolen? Have I lost it? I padded around in my pockets – longing for the validation of Facebook, feeling desperate to wile away the hours staring vacantly at events happening thousands of miles way. I soon realised I’d agreed to spend part of my summer living a primitive existence, in the middle of nowhere in a country most people associate with Mafia henchmen. I got back to my ploughing. Manual ploughing. Damn, I missed my phone.

Later than night Ardi walked with me up the mountain, (really a glorified hill), behind the house, he wouldn’t tell me why he just said I should follow him. He didn’t take a torch – and it was normal for him to do without.

He knows these hills like the back of his hand – think Maria Von Trapp but without the guitar, and with a 30 a day cigarette habit. As we reached the top in total darkness he told me to turn around. Miles and miles ahead of us a sea of lights twinkled like a thousand tea lights glistening on a tabletop.

“That’s Shkodre there, and over that hill next to it is Montenegro where they have everything.” He was right. Having visited Montenegro a few days earlier its seen the benefit of years of investment. It has more in common with the USA than its southern neighbour. The country shone golden in the night sky, hundreds of bulbs blocking out the night twinkles of the sky.

“What a shame,” I thought, “what a shame.”

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That night I reflected on the experience. I’d spent four days with no connection to the outside world, but the Earth hadn’t stopped spinning. I hadn’t spoken to anyone apart from those I shared close quarters with. Wars continued to rage, the political situation in Chechnya continued to perplex, and life went on. It was relaxing, refreshing. I got to know people around me better, experienced where I was, found out more about rural life than I ever could have done with an iPhone in my hand.

But it wasn’t until I got back to nine to five working I realised this. My life is filled with phones, computers, tablets, screens, screens and more screens. But unexpectedly it was the toaster which brought me the greatest joy – I didn’t have to play with an open fire to get some crunchy bread,  and that came as a great relief.

Looking back at those short few days in the wilderness makes me long to replicate a more simple life in suburbia, however impractical. Urban life in England is a far stretch from that of a rural Balkan farmer. The attraction of the simple life has a boundless draw, but so do the comforts of a modern, western lifestyle. That aside, one day I’d like to go back and live an all-together more simple life, there may even be an App help with.