We met when we were both students, which is a wonderful start to a relationship, giving you the chance to be part of the experiences where your mind and opinions and ways of seeing the world are developed. We were so lucky to have had that chance to try out roles and imagine futures alongside one another (in Rob’s case the trying-on of roles was literally true as he was active in a lot of drama productions at Oxford. The day after I first met him, I went to see him acting in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale where he played Leontes, the murderer. If you can still love a man after watching that then it›s a good sign for your relationship…)
Elizabeth: We chose to move to Kosovo because we were ready for an adventure together. Kosovo gave us a new shared project, a new shared interest, a new shared language. It meant we had to work as a unit, and certainly at the beginning we were much more dependent on one another than we’d been when we were living in London, where we each had our friends and our identity.
Robert: Living in Kosovo certainly made us stronger together: we were not only sharing such an unusual and positive experience; we also had to rely on each other so much – for support, for company. You also get a clearer idea of the other person’s character and strengths. When I started working in the PM’s office in Kosovo, Elizabeth was doing all of the administration of our life and recreating an identity of her own, with no framework or external support. It required amazing endurance and inspiration, and eventually the beneficiaries would include for example those who visit the ethnological museum that she helped to publicise, those who see the old Ottoman house that we helped to save, and the many children whom The Ideas Partnership have helped into their rightful place in regular school.
What are the challenges that you had to experience living in a small transitional country like Kosovo?
Elizabeth: The challenges faced by Kosovars are very different from those faced by ex-pats living there. We may all experience the same electricity cuts or minor frustrations with bureaucracy, but as a foreigner you still get treated with the full benefit of Kosovars’ traditions of hospitality – and that extends even to mundane experiences like dealings with the authorities (I would love it if the same was true for foreigners living in my home country).
We both spend more time on the Prishtina-Tirana autostrada than we’d like, and more money on air fares than we can afford, and more nights apart from one another than we’d choose – Elizabeth
As a foreigner you also have the luxury of knowing that it’s your choice to be in Kosovo, and that you have other options. We know that one of the biggest frustrations for Kosovars is the lack of visa-free travel and the sense of being trapped – I’ve only fully realised how precious my passport is since living out of England. So I don’t have complaints about challenges in Kosovo for our own lives. The biggest challenges are those that we’ve seen affecting the lives of people we care about who are from Kosovo – seeing Roma or Ashkali children who want to go to school being denied the chance to sit in a classroom, or watching talented, well-educated people unable to get a job, or keen students losing faith with their university.
“Kosovo gave us a new shared-interest”
Robert: After I learned to start cooking or watching a film a few minutes after the hour, not a few minutes before, there was no challenge that I think is worth mentioning. The life of a foreigner in Kosovo is very fortunate, and we were extremely lucky to have rich experiences and amazing kindness; Albanian hospitality is a stereotype, but it’s amazing how much it’s true – both the generosity of a welcome and the generosity of someone clearly very poor. At the same time, living in a foreign country makes you realise how lucky you are with your own background – relatively trustworthy public life, and relative good schools and hospitals – and to feel sorry for Kosovan children suffering from grim healthcare, old-fashioned approaches and messages in the classroom, racism, and broken optimism.
My mind opened dramatically as soon as I started living in a new country, and hopefully I learned to keep learning – Robert.
What has been the biggest challenge for your relationship while being there?
Elizabeth: The hardest thing has probably been juggling the geographical demands of our professional lives. When we lived in London and I was a teacher and Rob was working in Whitehall, we were both a maximum of one tube journey away from each other almost every day. Now Rob is the Deputy Head of Presence with the OSCE in Tirana, we’re both involved with The Ideas Partnership in Kosovo, I have consultancy work in Prishtina, and we both have commitments to do with promoting our books in the UK. We both spend more time on the Prishtina-Tirana autostrada than we’d like, and more money on air fares than we can afford, and more nights apart from one another than we’d choose.
Robert: And Elizabeth is better at Albanian than me.
How much different is your life now in comparison from the life you have had in your home country?
Elizabeth: It’s unrecognisable! Not only the incidental details are different, but I think many of our attitudes have been changed by the experience of living in Kosovo and Albania. Most importantly, we’re more spontaneous and less planned – whereas in London our diaries would be planned with friends and work weeks in advance. I think we’ve learned to be less selfish too.
Robert: My mind opened dramatically as soon as I started living in a new country, and hopefully I learned to keep learning. Our life is much much less settled than it might have been; and maybe that approach and that reality is never going to change.
How do you balance your personal and professional life?
Elizabeth: I’m not sure I do that very well though we have a few sacred times in the week – Friday and Saturday evenings, and Sunday mornings – when Rob and I commit to being together, and that helps to ensure that work commitments don’t invade every minute. It’s particularly hard because my writing is so autobiographical – my first book, Travels in Blood and Honey; becoming a beekeeper in Kosovo and my most recent book, Edith and I; on the trail of an Edwardian traveller in Kosovo, as well as my book which comes out in 2015, The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife; an unlikely friendship in Kosovo, all tell my own story so my personal life becomes a professional project as a writer.
Robert: Personal and professional life become blurred, when professional life takes you to a new country and your whole life, 24/7, is shaped accordingly. They’re also blurred when our ‘professional’ activities – Elizabeth’s writing, my own fiction and non-fiction, my public role speaking out on issues like democratisation and domestic violence and children’s rights – create the personal contacts and activities that fill our evenings.
How do you support each other to feel fulfilled?
Elizabeth: Rob wakes me up with a cup of tea in the morning, and we read to each other before we go to sleep. We talk to each other; we challenge each other; we help to remind each other what’s really important in life.
Robert: I think we genuinely believe that what each other is doing is important (indeed there are some things – some Ideas Partnership work, the Green Drinks initiative – that we do together), and each recognises that it is important to the other. Elizabeth is the first listener and first critic of my stories; I’m the first and sometimes only person who hears about the challenges she’s had each day with bureaucracy or racism or obstructionism in the work of The Ideas Partnership. And sometimes I get a cup of tea in the evening.
What are your plans for the future – where do you see yourself living in the future?
Elizabeth: Together! People sometimes ask about our life across three countries, wanting to know what I think of as ‘home’. I realised quite early on that home was defined for me as where Rob is, so my plans for the future are dependent on being with him. I hope that for a good long time we’ll be near enough to Kosovo and Albania for us to continue the commitments we have there, and being with the people we care about there, but that could involve work for either of us in other countries.
Robert: Anywhere with Elizabeth, a cup of tea, Wi-Fi – and nice scenery!