Thursday, 31 January 2013

Practicing photography (1) - winter, exhibitions and sales

Judging from the number of my posts - two a month at best!! - and the amount of time I spend finishing them off, I think I need to speed myself up a bit. When I start writing I set myself a serious task which feels a bit like a 'mini research' project which can take me several days to complete. 

So to try something different I am going to experiment a way to blog quicker. That is by posting pictures I take with my lovely camera while I practice the skill of photography.  This should at least in principle be quicker since I take a lot of photos but also make the blog a bit more varied.

I love the spring and the summer for the flowers and the green colours. Less so the autumn since it signals the end of the 'green' seasons but before everything becomes gray and dark, there is still light around and some lovely colours.  

The park in yellow and green 

The winter has arrived and the leaves are long gone

A warm sunset at the end of a winter's day 

I would like to have one of those long reporters' lenses that allow you to take close-up pictures of people without having to be up their nose but since I don't have one and they cost a fortune and are heavy to carry, I will have to do with my existing one.  

People watching William Klein's photos from his cities series, at the Tate Modern. 

These are Klein's pictures taken in New York. I love the top picture on the right of the child with a gun making a 'mafiosi' face. 

Sales have arrived and it's really fascinating to see people rushing in the shops to grab a bargain. Those that find the time and energy to do so... lol.

I like this elegant looking couple, on their way to some swanky shop or coffee shop

And finally a place to have some rest and be warm after a hard shopping afternoon. 

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

An Albanian in Britain (2) - values I appreciate

This summer I was invited to attend the British citizenship ceremony at Lambeth Town Hall, our local council. Of course I went through the process of applying to become a British citizen; it didn't all just happen on its own. And the process of applying is quite long, it takes three years for the spouse/partner of a British or European national to be eligible to apply for the citizenship. It also has a cost, for the whole process of some £1800. But what you get at the end is the 'certificate' which makes you a British citizen.

For most people present at the ceremony on the same day as me, the citizenship certificate I am sure represents much more than just a certificate. It is the successful result of a long journey that puts families and couples through some stress and anxiety. Are we going to get it? What if the officials decide not to grant it?

Other fellow citizens taking part in the group ceremony

So why is it so important . I am conscious this would not be a topic of interest for those that are born British and would echo more with those that become British but I hope other British fellow citizens will rediscover things they may be too used to.

One of them is the respect of democratic values

When pledging my loyalty to the UK I pledged to respect its rights and freedoms and uphold its democratic values. I also pledged to observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a citizen. When I first read the text of the pledge in the invitation letter, I was quite impressed by the emphasis on the respect of the laws, rights and freedoms and the responsibilities that come with being a citizen. But most of all the words ‘uphold the democratic values’ sounded very strong and will remain with me, especially after I read them out loud during the ceremony.

The Mayor of Lambeth, Councillor Clive Bennett walking to take his position during the group ceremony 

There was by the way an employee of the council that read people’s lips to make sure that they were able to say the words in English. She would check all the rows and fix her glance on to your lips for a couple of seconds. I thought this would provide an amusing line in a job description ‘ability to read lips from the distance – required’.

Nevertheless the three words ‘uphold the democratic values’ reveal something that is part of the British society and most people like myself that come from countries with little experienc of democracy value.

The Palace of Westminster, in the Houses of Parliament

Albania has a recent experience of some 20 years of democracy, since the break of communism, in the sense of a form of government and a system of rule. However democracy in the wider sense of the rights, freedoms and respect of the laws by everyone in the same way, remains an aspiration until the day most Albanians feel the system is working for them. 

In the North of Albania, a women is taking her sheep back home 

But there is no reason to be pessimistic. As we can observe in history (it took some 2500 years for democracy to get to how we know it today and a couple of revolutions, the American and French to acquire the attributes of a transforming process with positive outcomes for citizens) and around us in the world today (the invasion of Iraq in the name of democracy, the Arab spring, etc.) democracy is a process that takes time. 

Despite all this the fact that Albanian democracy is being made today is great. But this only explains part of the reasons why I am very 'sensitive' to the democratic values. The other part has to do with the fact that democracy as a political system first made an appearance in Athens, which is not very far from where our Albanian ancestors lived. I have always wandered whether there could have been any sort of influence in thinking given the geography and trade and cultural relations with the greeks. Historians might help me on that and I will continue to look for the answer.  

So the democratic values matter a lot to the new comers and I am sure even to Brits although they might seems more inclined to criticise their country in a self-derogatory mode.

Initiative and entrepreneurship

I really appreciate the creative force and courage that drives many people to set up their own companies. That is something quite scary for someone like me with not much entrepreneurship in my genes. But in the UK there is a general attitude that encourages people to come up with ideas and innovations and follow them through until they transform the ideas into practice. Find your own way and be successful type of solutions are to be found everywhere.

Local market where budding entrepreneurs compete for attention   

From friends and people I know I can think of many of them the same age as me that have set up their companies and are employing other people. In women’s magazines you always read about mums setting up their successful businesses after their maternity leave when they have decided a change of career and gone on to start with new ideas. These can range from opening nurseries, to baby clothing, music and dance academies etc. The ‘micro scooter’ very successful business founder was a mother in neighbouring Clapham South and it all started after her maternity leave. Although ‘mumpreneurs’ are often well educated and live comfortable ‘middleclass lives’ and have enjoyed opportunities enabled by wealth and family position, it doesn’t stop me noticing their courage and initiative.

Another area I find incredibly creative and bubbling with initiative is the charities sector and network of groups and societies set up about almost everything. They can be about breastfeeding (sometimes quite scary and sect-like in fact), books, protecting a historic building, public speaking, not to mention all the charities that work on medical research, those that protect children, the homeless and the vulnerable. Coming from a country where people request and expect the solution to their problems to come from the government or the state, this is very different.
Things are starting to change and some local grass-root community groups are developing that campaign and defend their cause, such as cycling in the capital, working with poor farmers in remote villages, etc. But there is so much more to be done and people to be helped. I know it’s easier said than done but a typical support group would start from someone who has been affected by some cause or injustice or has lost someone from a rare medical disease or a road accident. A support group for all victims of road accidents is badly needed or one that promotes and raises awareness of the dangers of speed, etc. The list is endless.

Freedom of thought and independence (from politics)

This is what we all aspire to have, freedom of thinking not influenced or manipulated by others. In reality it is difficult to remain absolutely independent as we are part of groups, share ideas and beliefs with others. But the type of influence or manipulation that is imposed by politics can 'burn up' independent thinking.

At Tate Modern, work by William Kentridge a South African artist 

In Albania everything is related to politics. People’s thoughts and opinions refer to the daily political debate and the day’s political figures. Of course it is hard to get away from – the cult of 'the communist leader' - where the ‘leader and his leading friends’ were the most important people in everyone’s’ lives. That was so true that if you knew or were extremely lucky to be part of the leaders circle, your life would be safe and your future relatively secure. If not you could be screwed.

So departing from the model where people were not allowed to think about anything other than the ‘leader’ to a model where people can think about something else, takes time. The good thing is that now there is not only one leader but two, leading the main two political parties who each aspire to be the 'one'. Despite the parody it is time that people think freely and independently and above all find solutions to their problems themselves without putting all their hopes on the leaders and the state to their own disappointment.

I often tease my mother and ask her how many times has she seen the current prime minister and leader of the opposition on TV. I know the answer, it is at least three times a day.

Independent thinking freeded up from politics will open the door to many other developments and it is coming.

In the meantime I appreciate the politics-free everyday life where I can chose to switch on to parliament channel whenever I want. I don't do very often  but at the option is there.

Battersea Park in the spring allows a lot of free thinking 

I wanted to talk about values of British society that I appreciate as someone coming from a different culture. But not all is rosy. There are some values which I highly dislike, such as the tabloid culture, consumption and the production of paper-thin characters. But this will be for the next post. 

Let me know your thoughts, whether you are Albanian, English, French or other. Do these values matter to you? Are there other values that matter to you? 

Thursday, 3 January 2013

What is your fashion style? Mine still confused since the arrival of the baby

I am going to talk about fashion, can you believe it? Not fashion in the sense of giving tips and trends on the new spring-summer 2013 season for example that’s not me at all, but about what fashion means for me now as a new mummy and how difficult I find to create a personal style.   
The difficulty mainly comes from all the changes that have occurred in my body and my ‘social’ roles. In the last ten years I used to be a strict size 8 and used to buy clothes in various shops without being wedded to any particular one. 

H&M and Zara was an all time favourite during the student years and occasionally I would buy from more expensive brands, from the gallery Lafayette for example during sales, or independent shops and vintage boutiques. I liked to think of myself as a free spirit who could wear anything as long as it didn’t make me look too old, ‘mumsy’ or too conventional. I didn’t think having a non-conventional style was too difficult and I was pretty comfortable with it.    
All this changed in the last two years during the pregnancy and the whole year after it. 
The young non-conventional style couldn’t work any longer and the alternatives were maternity and not-very-yummy mummy looks. I managed to go through the first five months of the pregnancy wearing the same jeans as before but done up using an elastic band tied around the waist to give some breathing space to a growing belly. When this trick couldn’t work anymore as the belly got bigger I got myself into the ‘leggins’ mode wearing long stripped T-shirts or jumpers on top. That was very comfortable and at the same time appeased my inner older self. I wasn’t too far from the young student wearing almost the same top and leggins but without the in-growth. During the last months I bought some maternity working trousers and jeans which I have to admit were also very comfortable. Going through a pregnancy for the first time is exciting although quite tiring as every week is different and you discover new things about the baby. 
So the baby is growing and so are you but by some magical tricks of our minds we seem to ignore the degree of change and only realise the scale of it when it is all over. By the end of the pregnancy my belly was massive and my body weight had some extra 20kg. I didn’t look in the slightest as the same skinny younger person I was before but that didn’t trouble me much. 

Once the baby was born things started to come back to normal, although very gradually and in the first weeks I was still wearing the same maternity jeans. Going back to my size 8 (UK size 26) jeans wasn’t an option until very recently – one year and a half later! And in the meantime the transition from being at home with the baby and adapting to a new life and a new role back to work brought up some challenges. 
Who is the new me – a girl, a woman or a mother? I guess all three and while it is easy to accept that intuitively, practically translating that into a style I am comfortable with is difficult. I cannot shop at H&M forever although I still do; I need to find a new mix of styles and brands that work for me. I was a student in France, a young professional in Albania and a young mummy in London. All these places have different fashion styles and some which are most popular with different social categories. For instance in Albania women are very glamorous, almost always use make-up and have a high (healed) image of themselves. 

In France students adopt alternative styles a la 'baba cool'. 
                            Not having a picture I 'borrowed' one from the internet
And in the UK people aspire to look smart. 

Various brands offer the yummy-mummy look, a mix of smart and sexy, very British styles that Albanian women might for instance not like at all such as Boden, Jon Lewis, Cath Kidston, L.K. Bennet. But the problem is that I don’t feel a yummy-mummy at all. And I probably don’t look it either. And this is not only for the ‘middle classiness’ it represents but also for the ‘conventional’ side of it and the social wealthy status associated with it. 
So not wanting to be a yummy-mummy leaves me with the choice of being simply a mummy that doesn’t know what her style is. 
I am working on it though, looking at fashion websites online and receiving free fashion advice by email which has got quite close to what I like and has defined my style as being ‘feminine, practical and independent’. I can be happy with that and in the meantime I browse through Miss Selfridges, Topshop and Joy who I think is my favourite shop at the moment. 
This was my experience about fashion and my evolving personal style and how a changing body and a new role as a mother have blurred my previous fashion lines. 
What about you, new mothers or fathers, mums-to be, girls and women what is your fashion experience, what makes your style evolve and how? I would love to hear from you.