Eek! Has it really been Five Months!?

Well, there goes another summer!  Mostly, this has been the year that wasn’t.  Somehow, Alfred and I were never able to get more than a few meters away from our own front door, which is of course frustrating for US – although the reason we couldn’t get away was because of having more-than-ever-before guests, more of whom than ever seemed to be really HAPPY.  Well, we’re glad YOU were enjoying yourselves!  (Sincerely!)

Of course, the high point of doing this is the friends we make – probably there should have been more of you – so many times when I’m frazzled and racing and just trying to make it through breakfast, through check in, through lunch, through dinner, through though the laundry, through making sure Alfred has at least ONE clean sock (thus being able to hop?) . . . . it becomes too easy to brush past guests, as if you were all just so many transitory lawn ornaments — and then someone claims a moment of attention (DAMN them!) and someone amazing is revealed.  Usually someone who gives us something — whether that something is a moment of insight, an invaluable suggestion (oh you woman who suggested the dry erase, taxi board!  What debt we owe you!  Who WERE you?), a belly-laugh — or the friends of this summer who have already contributed so much:  Helen & Lucy who gave their ipad to the kids of Valbona, thus allowing for the recording of precious oral histories (and the making of numerous photos in which everyone in Valbona comes out looking like Shrek), Elisa and Paul who have already revolutionized map-making in Valbona, the bicycle tourists who filled the az defensive driving school online‘s library with the most creative and random-ever assortment of excess baggage, Anna from Poland who brought printed proof that Valbona is a fairy tale land, Chris and Olivia from Prespa, Amanda and Megan who-will-be-back, and Bonnie Scott who has a lot to answer for every time I say “Bonnie SAYS . . . .”  For tomato plants (despite our black thumbs) and the Great North West Passage to Jezerces Lakes we have to thank Nicole.  To Karin and the whole gang from Prishtina we owe a huge thanks for being exactly the guests who turn our little hotel into the ongoing weekend home we want it to be.  AND you-who-are-not-named-here.  You know who you are, I and I hope you know how much we enjoyed you!

The big challenge – not really met very well (which explains why I am cooking at the moment) – was staffing.  Mostly we failed, and mostly Alfred and I did it, and mostly this is really not good enough, but if there was a bright sparkle in the summer it was the international volunteers we hosted (and took outrageous advantage of?).  Kean Li, you know who you are – and it’s delight for the rest of us to try to get a handle on it.  NO ONE has ever made Alfred laugh MORE.  Not even me, which is pretty nice of me, IF you ask me, not to resent.  But how could I?  Solene & Gaby who did so much (where did you go?!).  And the couple with us now, Wendy Bird and Johan, who despite the fact that they are definitely leaving on Wednesday, will remain in our hearts – and I hope (soon) in your video streams.

Through it all, several good lessons emerged.  One is that we DEFINITELY NEED MORE FOREIGN VOLUNTEERS.  If that’s potentially YOU, please do contact us.  Not only do foreigners frankly understand better the concept of ‘service,’ they provide an invaluable teaching example to local people – much more effective and practical than any number of (stupid) training seminars sponsored by ultimately self-serving aid NGOS in which someone talks AT a room full of people who barely understand them.  We will do whatever we can within our limited resources (don’t forget it’s only for the last two years that even Alfred and I have managed to keep a room for ourselves) to make your time here as pleasant as possible.  Another interesting lesson is finding a graceful way to be fairly paid for the services we provide (with our LIFESBLOOD, dammit – or at any rate with as much energy as is humanly possible).  We emerged from the summer finding ourselves genuinely resenting tour agencies.  As “Bonnie Says”:  “Of course no one enjoys being taken advantage of, but if you ARE being taken advantage of, it’s probably because you’re creating the opportunity.”  Next year we should definitely try to be more direct about selling what we do do straight to customers.  Why are Certain Tour Agencies making a lot of money off of helping YOU walk on trails WE marked, while demanding discounts and freebees from us which make it barely worth staying open at all?  Clearly we need to do a better job of selling direct – your advice and suggestions of how to improve are warmly invited!

The summer did include at least one Notable Victory.  As some of you may know, Valbona has been a National Park on paper for 20 years.  But it’s never had a budget, staff, a management plan, zoning or Any Kind of Realistic . . . Reality.  About 2 years ago, Alfred and I started spending a certain amount of time every year, usually in Spring, banging on various international, NGO and Ministry doors, asking “What does this ‘National Park’ really MEAN?”  The most important thing we learned was that there was an EU-funded project underway to finally draft a Management Plan for the park, which went under the name of SELEA.  However, we were politely put off, in a variety of entertaining ways, from every having any involvement in the project (this, despite the EU requirement of local stakeholder involvement).  Thanks to the MOST AMAZING EVER EU consultant, Sissi (if that isn’t the best name ever . . . .well, it just IS), we HAVE been involved in a secondary project which is — hold on to your Hats! — the drafting of an even BIGGER Management Plan, for an Even Bigger National Park:  The Albanian National Park of the Alps, which will not  only combine the 3 existing protected areas of Theth, Valbona and Gashi, but . . . are you ready? . . . TRIPLE their area to a whopping 30,000 hectares of protected land.  Thanks to Sissi not only were we notified about the July inceptory meeting for the project, BUT we attended, and Not Only Us, but a bunch of other Local Stakeholders from Valbona (to everyone’s amazement) attended, AND it just so happens that this meeting included a Presentation of the SELEA project’s Management Plan for Valbona National Park, which not surprisingly was completely stupid, since it was drafted in two weeks by people who never left Tirana, and the MOST AMAZING part of the story is:  That because we were there and had a fit, we were invited to submit ‘comments’ on the draft.  And despite the fact that we only had 3 days to read 200 pages of draft Plan, it was so stupid that commenting on a total of 15 pages (including the draft zoning plan, which would have divested several hundred people of their land) was enough to cause the Albanian Ministry of the Environment to . . . . (are you ready?) REJECT THE PLAN.  I’m not sure you can imagine what a huge triumph and affirmation this was for local people, who are more used for about 2,000 years of history to the idea of benefitting only from neglect (“We cannot expect mercy, but we can hope for neglect,” in the words of Shangri-La).  In November begins the aggressive planning of the New Park’s Management Plan, which thanks to Sissi should include massive local involvement – and thus the Best Possible National Park for everyone involved.  That IS one nice thing to have achieved this year.

I guess that’s probably enough from me, for now.  The days are getting colder, and the leaves are beginning to golden.  Another summer passes in Valbona, and a long winter should begin, we hope.  ‘Hope’ because this is our time free, for planning, dreaming and solidifying . . . . Please do be in touch.  My godson took the “Facebook” button off this website during the time (years) that I was busy sneering at facebook, but over the last year I decided to stop being such an elitist pig and accept that this is how most Albanians use the internet, (“Bonnie Says” most Albanians confuse ‘Facebook’ with ‘the internet’ and think having a facebook page is the same thing as having a website), so the point IS that we do have a facebook page which you are welcome to follow:  Search Journey to Valbona.  Or just be in touch, however.

All the Best, to you and yours,

Sincerely,

Catherine

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