Monday, March 20, 2017

Another meze at Kira Georgena taverna

About four months ago, some visiting friends took us out to eat at a local taverna whose name in English is Kira (or Kura) Georgena.  We liked it so much that when other friends were visiting last week, and wanted to take us out for meze, we suggested the same place.

Meze is a wonderful way for groups of people to eat in Cyprus. The idea is to have small portions of large numbers of different kinds of food, brought out gradually through the evening.The price per person is typically between about 15 and 18 euros, which sounds like a lot; but with four people it's usual to ask for a meze for three people, as there's always a vast quantity of food and not everyone likes everything. So that's what we did.

I remembered to take photos, this time, and we even attempted to count the dishes; we kept losing track, but think there were about thirty in all, excluding the dessert.

The starter - which comes very quickly - is typical for a meze: a Greek salad (mainly cucumber, tomatoes and feta cheese), a plate of pickled vegetables and quail eggs, bread and dips.  There were two kinds of bread with the starter: some toasted bread dipped in olive oil and herbs (delicious!) and some pittas, and four dips: tzatsiki (cucumber in yogurt), tashi (a specialist tahini dip), humus (the well-known chickpea dip, oozing with olive oil and very tasty), and an egg-feta dish which, the waitress informed us, was their own speciality.


In addition, the starter included some raw root vegetables, some olive paste, a small plate of ham/cheese slices, and a small plate of dried goat meat.

So that was twelve different dishes just for the 'starter'.  It would be very easy to fill up on this - and I liked the dips so much that I had quite a bit, although I didn't have any of the meat or cheese.  But we hadn't finished when the next two dishes arrived:  some freshly grilled halloumi, and this, a tomato/cheese dish which I don't remember seeing before, somewhat reminiscent of pizza:


One of our number is a vegetarian, and I incline that way myself, so I wasn't going to take photos of the meat dishes; but the two meat-eaters said that the next item to arrive, two different kinds of sausage, was so good that it needed a picture:


Then some baked eggs arrived with some hot olives (we didn't know whether to count that as one dish or two - but it was on one plate) and some warm local fluffy bread:


There were a couple more meat dishes that arrived while I was still eating salads and dips, and some mushrooms cooked in scrambled eggs, which I enjoyed very much.  Then a medium sized plate of chips (french fries to any US readers):


Not all mezes include chips, which I suppose are a gesture to the international nature of many visitors and residents of Cyprus, and we were all feeling quite full by the time they arrived... but when we started eating 'just one or two' each, we discovered that they were light and perfectly cooked, and so delicious that we managed to finish them.

By this stage we had been given about twenty-five dishes, including several kinds of meat. We were asked if we wanted 'escargots', and declined politely but firmly.

A bigger plate of meat then appeared; this usually signals the end of a meze, and as we were all very full by this stage, we decided that we would probably ask to take most of this home with us:


We counted that as one 'dish' but there were three kinds of meat on the plate.

And food kept coming. The deep-fried courgettes, as last time, were my favourite:


I ate very slowly, as I was extremely full but wanted to enjoy them.  I didn't even touch the rocket-and-egg dish which arrived at the same time, although it looked good, nor the pasta with grated halloumi:


I don't think I've remembered everything, but that's most of our meze.  We were even given an extra dish of humus as we'd finished the first one.

Thankfully we were given ten minutes or so to digest before the dessert was brought out - all part of the meze.  Fresh seasonal fruit, candied fruit, and cherries in liqueur.  I didn't even try the candied fruit or the cherries, but very much enjoyed a strawberry and a couple of slices of orange:


Then... fresh loukoumades.  They're not something I ever make, or buy; but these were very good ones, and since our visitors only wanted one each. I ate (blush) three of them...


Then, when I was wondering if I would be able to get out of my chair and walk, one of our friends, who plays one of the Pokemon games on her phone, announced that there was a Pokemon just in front of the wall, next to me.  I said I couldn't see it, feeling slightly spooked, so she took a photo:


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Twenty books so far this year

After the first hints of spring, this weekend, as so often happens in March, has returned us to chillier weather. It rained yesterday, on and off, and although it wasn't predicted to start raining until eight o'clock this morning, the heavens opened around 7.15 when my friend Sheila and I were almost at the end of our walk. We didn't have umbrellas and weren't wearing raincoats... we were drenched.

As Sheila has decided to write about the books she reads each month, I thought I might take a short break from writing about living in Cyprus, and do something similar. I write reviews of all the books I read on my book reviews blog,  but more people visit this one.  I challenge myself to read a hundred books each year; that doesn't sound like very many, but life gets in the way and some days I read only a page or two.

I've finished twenty books so far this year, so I'm currently on track. Rather than write about them chronologically, I've listed them below in categories.  My aim is to read a couple of Christian non-fiction books each month, four novels, one writing book, and one 'other' - maybe a biography, or a self-help book, or one about personalities, or that catch-all 'miscellaneous'. Most of the novels I read are in the genre of women's fiction (relationship/character-based, primarily) but I also like reading and re-reading some teenage fiction. I try to slot in a few light crime novels too, to make a change now and again.

I usually have about six books that I'm reading at any moment; they're listed in my sidebar if anyone's interested. Likewise, if you're curious to find out more of what I thought about any of them, links given below are to the reviews on my book blog.

Christian books 

At the start of the year we were in the UK visiting relatives, so I was mainly reading on my Kindle.  I wasn't particularly impressed with 'Meeting Rich', which is almost too short to count as a book, but it was quite well written, and passed the time.

Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber
I then started reading one of the books I was given for Christmas: 'Accidental Saints' by Nadia Bolz-Weber. I wish this book didn't contain such strong, sometimes crude language, because it's extremely well written otherwise, and very thought-provoking. The author is a Lutheran pastor who runs an alternative and inclusive church, and while some of her ideas are quite controversial, she writes with compassion and humility, and I thought it excellent.

The third Christian book I finished this year, again on my Kindle, was 'The Jesus Training Manual', a title which almost put me off reading it. However, it was well written, if a little repetitive in places: a mixture of biographical account, as the author's faith and theology underwent some significant changes, and some teaching of the kind which we'd first heard in the Vineyard Church we belonged to for a couple of years back in the 1990s when we lived in the United States.

Then I read a book which I found on one of our shelves with a much more appealing title: 'Following Jesus without embarrassing God', by Tony Campolo.

- So I succeeded in my aim of two per month, and hope to finish the two I'm currently reading by the end of March.

Novels 

The first book I finished reading was on my Kindle, one I started on our flight to the UK a couple of days after Christmas. 'Passing Shadows' by Della Galton was ideal holiday reading; it's a romance featuring an artist and a woman who runs an animal centre.

The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett
I then embarked on 'The Shepherd's Crown' by Terry Pratchett, which I was given for Christmas.  It was a little bittersweet, knowing it was the last book Sir Terry wrote before he died; I love the way it ties up so many loose endings, and that it's the last of his series for older children and teenagers. It was moving as well as having amusing moments, and I was very pleased to have read it at last.

'Summer on the River' by Marcia Willett was the next novel I decided to read. That was another Christmas present, and I started reading it on our return flight to Cyprus... then found I could barely put it down. As with most of this author's stories, it's character-based and about different kinds of relationships. I liked it very much.

I then decided I should finish 'Elsie's Kith and Kin', a book I had been reading on my Kindle, off and on, for quite some time. I was quite pleased when I first discovered the 'Elsie' series free to download, having read about them in the Chalet School books. I worked my way through a couple of them some years ago.  I didn't much like this one, though, and doubt if I'll read any more.

Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon
Back to my Christmas books, and I had immense pleasure reading Jan Karon's latest, 'Come Rain or Come Shine'. I've loved all her Mitford series, featuring the delightful (and now retired) Father Tim and his wife Cynthia. This one features a wedding, and is best read after the rest of the books.

After that I read yet another Christmas book, 'The Great Christmas Knit Off' by Alexandra Brown. It's lighter than the previous books I'd been reading, but moves at a good pace and is surprisingly thought-provoking in places. I hadn't read anything by this author before, but thought that a book about knitting made a nice change from the many similar books about cakes or other baking.

Interspersed with new books I like to re-read books I've enjoyed at least eight years previously, and I tend to work through novels by some of my favourite writers. So the next one I picked up was 'Tell Mrs Poole I'm Sorry' by Kathleen Rowntree, a book I had only read once before, as long ago as 2001. I had only the vaguest recollection of the story, and while it's somewhat shocking, it's very well written.

After that, wanting something different, I decided to re-read Frank Peretti's 'The Visitation', another book which I first read in 2001 but have not picked up since. I had vague memories of it being a book that I found pleasanter than I had expected. I liked the first part very much, when a visitor comes to a small American town and starts doing 'miracles'... but it gradually became more suspenseful and quite violent in places. So I doubt if I'll read that one again.

I followed it with another lighter-looking novel, 'Summer with my Sister' by Lucy Diamond, which I acquired second-hand some time last year.  It's another book about relationships - it features the contrast between a high-flying business woman and a single mother who are sisters, and have almost nothing in common.  I enjoyed it.

After that I picked up 'Many Waters' by Madeleine L'Engle, which I don't think I have ever read before, although it has been on our bookcase of teenage books for many years. Rather different from the others in the 'Time Quintet', the fantasy and science are minimal; the bulk of the story takes place on Earth in the time before Noah.  I was surprised at how much I liked it.

The next novel was another re-read: 'An Ocean Apart' by Robin Pilcher, son of the better-known Rosamunde Pilcher. This was his debut novel, and I read it first in 2001. I'd almost entirely forgotten the story, and once again I loved it.  It's character-based, and in places extremely moving.

I followed that with the much lighter 'Horizontal Epistles of Andromeda Veal' by Adrian Plass, sequel to his first 'Sacred Diary' book. Light-hearted fun with a more serious underlying story; an eight-year-old girl with socialist leanings and highly creative spelling is in traction in hospital with a broken femur, and writes letters to friends, acquaintances, and world leaders.

- So, I finished twelve novels in two months, which is more than my planned one per week. Three are intended for teenagers, and there's inevitably cross-over between the genres as five of them would also be considered Christian books.

Writing books

Writing with Cold Feet by Kathrin Lake
I downloaded on my Kindle 'Back to Creative Writing School' by Bridget Whelan a long time ago, and dipped into it several times before deciding to read it to the end. It takes the format of a creative writing class, so could be studied over the course of several weeks. I liked it very much, and thought it helpful, but didn't do most of the exercises.

I then read 'Writing with Cold Feet' by Kathrin Lake, a slim volume that contains a great deal of wisdom. It doesn't give instruction about writing, or grammar, and doesn't have any exercises as such. Instead it looks at reasons why so many writers feel immense resistance when they sit down at the computer to write. I thought it extremely helpful and inspiring.

Miscellaneous

How it Works: The Mum (A LadyBird Book)
The first 'other' book I read was very short, and almost a cheat to include it in a list of books read, as it took me no more than ten minutes to read it, punctuated by reading bits aloud or chuckling. However, I thought it a wonderful book so wrote about it on my blog - 'How it Works: The Mum', another book which I was given for Christmas.   It's a Ladybird book, in the style of the children's books that were so popular in the 60s and 70s; anyone who has not come across Ladybird books of that era would probably find it bizarre!

And finally... 'The Procrastination Equation' by Dr Piers Steel. It's somewhat of an academic work, by a writer who has done extensive research into what makes people procrastinate, discovering three main styles of procrastination, and outlining what may (or may not) help with working through it. Very interesting information about the way our brains work; a little heavy in places, but overall I thought it excellent.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Spring, Lent, and Yellow Month in Cyprus

It happens around this time every year in Cyprus. The heating doesn't come on in the evenings, as the house is already warm enough. The days get longer, the sun shines with more regularity, and yellow weeds - often quite attractive weeds - appear in abundance on waste ground, like these ones pushing their way over the path on the Salt Lake trail:

yellow weeds for March in Cyprus

Citrus trees are fruiting too. The one thing I occasionally miss about our old house is the fruit that seemed so unusual to pick at first, then commonplace. But our local friends have a lemon tree that's prolific this year, and have been generous in passing bags of lemons to us. I asked if we could have a few earlier in the week, realising that Shrove Tuesday was coming up, and we Brits traditionally eat pancakes with lemon and sugar.  But I agreed that I could use more than a few...

lemons from a friend's tree in Cyprus

Easter is an important festival in the Christian Church, and also culturally in Cyprus where the majority of the population are Greek Orthodox, albeit in name only in many cases. In most years, there are two Easters, their dates calculated by different methods. But this year, as happens from time to time, both the Western and the Eastern Easter will be on the same Sunday in the middle of April.

That means that Lent - the forty-day run-up to Easter - should have started at the same time too, one would think. But that's not the case. In our Western tradition, the last day before Lent is Shrove Tuesday, although it's more often known as Pancake Day by the secular majority.  Traditionally one was supposed to use up products such as eggs and sugar prior to a simpler, vegetarian or sugar-free lifestyle during the days of Lent, in preparation for Easter.  Shrove Tuesday was four days ago, and yes, I made some pancake mixture, which Richard cooked after we had our evening meal:

pancake made for Shrove Tuesday

My recipe makes eight pancakes, which was fine when there were four of us living here, or indeed when there were three of us, as we could make them bigger or one of our number would eat more than two.  But this time we decided to put half the mixture in the fridge for the following day.

Back to the difference in Lent traditions, the Eastern church, at least in this country, begins five days before Shrove Tuesday, with 'Fat Thursday', or Tsiknopempti, as it's called here. It's the day when the faithful are supposed to use up all the meat in their household, with barbecues or feasts for the family; Lent as a fasting season was taken quite seriously until relatively recently.

When we first moved here, there wasn't much meat available during Lent, and we were told that we should be certain not to have barbecues or eat any kind of meat outside during the Eastern Lent period. Nowadays there's just as much meat available now as at any other time of year, and Cypriots openly cook and eat meat right through the Lenten period. There are some 'fasting' foods available: more vegan cheese than can normally be found, and a wide range of halva.  Tsiknopempti is celebrated by going out and buying more meat to feast on.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday last weekend were then the Carnival weekend in the Eastern tradition. There are floats and parades along the sea front, with children (and adults!) dressing up in costumes. The word 'Carnival' originally referred to the removal of meat, but that seems to have been forgotten. Carnival in Cyprus is safe and lively, not the dangerous brawls one sometimes hears about in other European countries, but it's too loud and crowded for me, and I keep away.

Monday was then 'Green Monday' (also known as Clean Monday, and the first day of Eastern Lent) which is a public holiday in Cyprus. It's roughly equivalent to the Western Ash Wednesday (the day after Shrove Tuesday) and in theory should be when people cast off sinful attitudes, forgive anyone they're harbouring grudges against, and ensure there are no tempting delicacies in the house.

In practice, at least in Cyprus,  many people spend the morning spring-cleaning their houses, then go out with their families and friends on a picnic, after which they fly kites.  Again, when we first moved here, we were told that on Green Monday we must make certain not to take any meat on a picnic as it would offend the Greek Orthodox.  Nowadays many Cypriots fire up their barbecues again with meat for their Green Monday picnics.

Back to our leftover pancake mixture.

On Wednesday, neither of us felt hungry after our evening meal, so the mixture remained in the fridge.

On Thursday, we decided to have our last pancakes after lunch. So Richard started cooking them...

.. and suddenly the handle sheared off the pan!  It's a heavy-based pan which I've used for omelettes regularly, and there was no hint that it was breaking. Happily the pancake was fine, but clearly, it wasn't possible to repair the pan safely:

broken frying pan

So he finished cooking the pancakes in a smaller frying pan, and they were very good.

I knew we had to go to a supermarket that afternoon, and was undecided between Metro and Lidl.... we hadn't been to either since before Christmas, as I do most shopping locally, but we needed various things that couldn't easily be found locally.

I looked through the Lidl advertising brochure that arrives weekly, and discovered that they had a special offer on heavy-based frying pans, in the size we needed.  So that determined which supermarket we would visit!  We weren't too keen on Lidl when it first appeared in Cyprus some years ago, as there is a very limited range of regular items, but we now know what's good value, and sometimes the special offers are extremely good.

So we went to Lidl, and now have a new 24cm frying pan:

new 24cm frying pan from Lidl

We used exactly one of our donated lemons with our pancakes. So this morning I processed the rest, freezing another litre with some peel for lemonade in the late summer or autumn when lemons are no longer available, and making more lemon cubes that can be used easily in drinks or food where a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice are called for. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Peculiarities of Plumbing in Cyprus

One of the comments made, now and then, by friends or relatives visiting us in Cyprus is that the skyline is somewhat spoiled by all the water tanks and solar heating panels.  We've got used to them ourselves, after nearly twenty years living on the island, but they do have a point. This, for instance, is typical:

water tanks and solar panels are a feature of Cyprus roofs

(If the image seems too small, clicking it should lead to a bigger, clearer view). 

Whereas in cooler countries, hot water tanks are usually indoors, and insulated with warm lagged jackets, in Cyprus they are outside, on the roof, and (so long as the sun is shining) water is heated by the large solar panels.

Cold water tanks seem very old fashioned to many who don't live in Cyprus, but for many years there was a severe drought on the island. When we moved here, mains water was only switched on a couple of times per week. So it was vital to have cold water storage tanks for use in between times.

Most kitchen taps are still equipped with both mains and tank water availability, with the mains (sometimes filtered) for drinking, and the tank water, hot and cold, for washing dishes. Our dishwasher and washing machine run from the tank, as made sense during the drought years. Nowadays, with recent rainy years and the functioning desalination plants, water is on almost all the time, and some people now have their machines attached directly to the mains water inlets.

Since our house is in two parts, with a separate flat underneath the main part where we live (fairly typical in Cyprus) we have four tanks in all.  The hot ones, fed from the larger cold ones above them, are heated by the solar panels.


The trouble with tanks being on the roof is that, despite being strong and long-lasting, they are at the mercy of the elements. The sun is very hot in summer, and in recent years the winds have been extremely strong at times in the winter.

Seven-and-a-half years ago, we had to have the guest flat cold water tank (the one nearest the edge) replaced, due to a serious leak in the side. We had the pump fixed too, and various other repairs, and everything worked nicely. It was a little frustrating that the hot water never seemed to stay hot for more than an hour or two in the evening, after the sun had gone down, and Richard muttered now and again about having some extra insulation. But we have an electric water heater to supplement the solar power, so we used that when we needed hot water in the evening, or before it had warmed up sufficiently in the morning.

Now and again we noticed that drips were starting again, and we called in plumbers - I think we've used three different ones now, maybe more - who repaired problems in pipes, or outlets, or, on occasion, the ballcocks that are supposed to regulate when the tank stops filling up.  The latter seems to be a common problem; one of our neighbours has a tank that overflows for short periods regularly, as can be seen by the marks down the side of the top tank:

showing the drips down a cold water tank on a roof in Cyprus

Last year we realised that we were seeing were yet more drips, and they weren't just sporadic. We looked at them, and sighed, and said something had to be done. But it didn't seem like a huge problem and we didn't get around to it.

Then one day towards the end of the year, we had water not just dripping onto the balcony below the tanks, but pouring down. We called our friendly local plumber, who came pretty quickly and said that there were two issues. The guest flat hot water tank had developed a serious leak in one of the seams, and was spewing water out. That one was fairly easily fixed, which is good because some of the water was also leaking inside our roof and dripping through the bathroom ceiling.

However, the other hot water tank had a hole that couldn't be fixed, and needed to be replaced completely. But we couldn't have a tank off the shelf; it's pressurised and had to be built specially. So the plumber put in an order, and hoped it would be ready to install before Christmas.

Unsurprisingly, that didn't happen and we were in the UK with the family by the time Richard had a text message to say that the tank was ready.  By the time we were back in Cyprus, the plumber had too many other jobs, then Richard went away again.  Finally a date was arranged, only to discover that the company who had built the new tank had given up waiting for it to be claimed, and sold it to someone else.

But finally, a couple of weeks ago, the plumber arrived with a couple of other guys and the new tank. It took them a couple of hours to put it in place, and everything looked good. There was some slight confusion in that it looked, from the wiring, as if it was the guest flat tank and not the main house one... apparently both the wiring and the pipework are 'interesting'. As is not atypical in this country.

However, there were no more leaks for the rest of the day, and to our delight, the new tank is much better insulated than the old one was, meaning that the water is still hot enough for a shower even four hours after the sun has gone down on a chilly day.  It wasn't cheap having this new tank, but over a few years we should save quite a bit on our electricity bill.

The night after the new tank was installed, I thought I heard a drip, and saw a bit of a puddle on the balcony after dark. But it had been a cloudy day, and I thought perhaps it had rained. The following morning the balcony was dry, and there were no more drips for nearly a week.

However, we had people staying in our guest flat for that week. The day after they departed, there were more drips, which - as far we could tell - were coming out of the guest flat cold water tank, or possibly one of the pipes nearby.  Puddles were appearing yet again on the balcony:

puddle of water due to drips from our water tank, yet again

I thought I could temporarily stop the drips by switching off the guest flat mains water, thinking it might be an overflow problem. So I did that... but it made no difference.

So Richard called the plumber, who came to take a look. He said it was an overflow problem, and the ballcock wasn't working. So he used a little stopcock valve next to the tank to stop water going into it. He was rather surprised to discover, when up the ladder, that there was no round cover at the top of the tank, so it's open to the air... but said he could replace that too, early next week.

The dripping stopped... for a couple of hours.

By evening, it had started again. This makes no sense at all, but then I couldn't understand how the tank could still be leaking when the mains water to it is switched off.  We now think there must be some serious problem with pressure somewhere in the system, in a way that I don't begin to understand.

Life is never entirely straightforward in Cyprus. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Time and Trust in Cyprus

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a lengthy post bewailing modern technology as it gradually takes over life in Cyprus. Things are no longer as simple as they used to be.

To summarise the post: I couldn't pay our van tax because it needed an MOT, and when the MOT was done I couldn't pay it because my debit card had expired. When I went to collect my new card from the bank, they had returned it because I hadn't collected it in December, despite not knowing it was there. Meanwhile I couldn't pay our PO Box fee because the 'system' wasn't working, so I left the money with the postmistress who assured me she would do it the next day...

There's something about starting a routine, or habit, which makes it become easier as the weeks go by. Those two Fridays in January, I made sure I had things to post to motivate me to walk to the Post Office. It's only a mile away, and it wasn't as cold as it had been some early mornings when I walk with my friend Sheila, but I didn't much want to go out. However, Richard was away, and I don't drive.

I decided to combine the trips to the Post Office with my usual Friday shopping at our local froutaria...

The fruit shop - or froutaria - where we buy all our fruit and vegetables in Cyprus

... and the connected mini-market over the road from the froutaria:

The mini-market, Achna Discount, where we buy general groceries in Cyprus

The Post Office is about a mile from our house, near the sea-front. It's another mile or so in the other direction to the fruitaria, and then a short walk home. Quite a pleasant outing, once I was out in the sunshine, even if it was rather chilly.

So each time I took my Lakeland shopping trolley (one of the best purchases I have ever made):

The trolley that accompanies me on my shopping trips. Wonderful buy from Lakeland UK.

A few days after my foray into the bank, they phoned me to say that my card had arrived.  I could have gone to collect it at once (the bank is perhaps half a mile away) but decided I would leave it until the Friday, and do another round trip.  There was no urgency to pay the road tax, and I didn't need the debit card for anything else; I generally use cash at the froutaria and discount mini-market.

PO Box Rental part 3
So on Friday, just over a week ago, I walked down to the Post Office once again. There was no receipt in my box, so although I didn't have anything to post this time, I went inside.

Once again there was only one postmistress there, not the one to whom I had handed over the cash for the box renewal. She remembered me from the previous week. I asked her if, perhaps, the other lady had done the renewal and forgotten to give me my receipt. She checked the system, and said that no, it wasn't renewed.

However, she told me, I wasn't the only customer in the same situation. Apparently the other postmistress had been off sick, and had put the money for the PO Box renewals in some account which her colleague couldn't access.  She assured me it would be done on Monday, and they would phone to let me know.

Perhaps I should have ensured I was given a receipt for the cash when I paid it; or, even better, kept it and said I would return another time, since I did in fact keep on returning every week. But trust is important in Cyprus, and I couldn't imagine they would try to cheat me, or insist that I hadn't in fact paid anything. So I said it was okay, and I would wait.

New Debit card part 2
I quite like walking along the main shopping streets of Larnaka, occasionally popping into a shop, or looking in the windows, but my next stop was the bank.

I stood in the queue, as usual, and when I got to the front was told I needed to go to one of the desks further inside the bank. I eventually found it, and instead of just handing over my card (in a thick envelope) and asking me to sign for it, the man at the desk had to access my account, and spend several minutes entering things and eventually succeeding in printing a form. Then I not only had to sign it, I had to enter my passport number. I have no idea why, but it's a good thing I carry it with me. It would have been very annoying to have got that far and been unable to collect the card.

The design of the card is different - it's yellow rather than red - and it's equipped with contactless technology, which always slightly scares me. But we keep our contactless cards in little metal-lined folders so they can't accidentally (or maliciously) be triggered.

Car Tax part 4
I got home, and logged into the jccsmart website, and - at last! - succeeded in paying the year's tax for the van.

Success!

Side note
A few months ago, when we realised we had to write off our two old cars, the mechanic agreed to deal with the scrap merchant, and harvest any parts that could be used. They said we might possibly get €200, and that was only because one of the cars had fairly new tyres. They were supposed to let us know when the transaction happened, but we didn't hear anything. Then we went away shortly after Christmas, and hadn't thought much about it.

When Richard got back from his travels, ten days ago, he went to collect the van after its MOT.  They had had to sort out one or two things, and did a full oil change too, and - including the test certificate - the bill came to €70, which seemed quite reasonable. Better still, they said that our old cars had in fact fetched €250, so rather than having to pay anything, he was given €180 in cash as well as the van with its up-to-date MOT.

PO Box Rental part 4
There was no phone call on Monday, but on Wednesday I had a call from the Post Office! They wanted to check the details, then went ahead and renewed our box rental for another two years.

Whew.

The receipt was awaiting me when I walked down to the Post Office yesterday.  So everything is now done. It might take much longer than it should, but I should have trusted that it would work out correctly. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

In Appreciation of my Dishwasher

A popular personality theory tells us that when we make decisions we each have a distinct preference for either 'thinking' (based on principles, categories, factual reasons, logic, etc) or 'feeling' (personal values, cultural expectations, pleasing other people, going with our heart, etc). It's not that simple, of course, and we all use all of the above at times, but the theory can be a useful way of understanding why some people make the decisions they do.

Recently, however, I read something which implied that in most cases, deep down, everyone makes 'feeling' decisions. Those who prefer 'thinking' may then try to justify those decisions rationally, or explain themselves, because (ironically) they care about their image and want to be thought of as logical. And, indeed, we all tend to find 'evidence' to support our decisions, whatever they might be. But the true 'reason' for most choices is - according to this - that it's what we felt was the best thing to do at the time.

I suspect there's some truth in this. Arguments and criticisms often arise due to differing principles and beliefs, yet in many cases decisions have been made due to personal preference or gut feelings. They may have been researched beforehand; there may be many 'thinking' factors taken into account: but when the purchase is made, or the contract signed, or the X marked on the voting paper, it's because at some level our heart tells us that it's the right decision.

A friend recently linked on Facebook to an article explaining why a large family in the United States have decided to wash their dishes by hand rather than using a dishwasher. Several people commented saying that they agreed, and gave reasons why they prefer hand-washing to dishwashers.

That's fine, and it's none of my business how anyone else chooses to wash their dishes. But it occurred to me that while I've read other posts, in the past, about why people choose not to use dishwashers (or computers, or air conditioners, or televisions, or whatever it happens to be) I rarely read posts about why people DO use them. So I started mentally composing my own blog post trying to refute each point from my own perspective.

Then I remembered what I mentioned above. People make their choices, sometimes based on past experience, sometimes based on hunches, sometimes on what they have read, or on inherent biases, or sometimes, (as is the case with the post concerned) to help family harmony. My viewpoint is equally valid, but there's no point presenting it as an argument.

We didn't have a dishwasher when we lived in the UK, but then neither did most of our friends. With a nice kitchen, built to suit my height (or lack thereof) and 'instant heat' water, washing up wasn't too much of a chore. We didn't entertain very often, and when we did it was usually close friends or family who helped with the dishes. At the time, I was ambivalent about dishwashers, seeing pros and cons, admiring them in other people's homes, but with no wish to have one of our own.

We didn't have a dishwasher at the house we rented when we first moved to Cyprus, either. But the sink was a bit too high to be comfortable for me. In Summer there was plenty of solar-powered hot water, but the kitchen was also hot and very humid. Washing up even just for the four of us was a major effort, and when we had guests, or visitors, even if they were keen to help, they were soon dripping and exhausted, unused to the temperature.

In winter the kitchen was cold and washing up much pleasanter... but without much sunshine we either had to run the immersion heater to get a tank full of hot water, or boil the kettle several times and risk being scalded (quite a high risk in my case!)

Now we have our own house, and one of the things that sold it to me was the space and plumbing for a dishwasher. Eleven years later there are just two of us living here, most of the time.  Recently I was here on my own for nearly two weeks. But I still used the dishwasher. Why? Because I like it!

Naturally enough, I can easily come up with some 'thinking' reasons, such as:

- I don't have to heat water specially to wash up
- I don't get the backache that inevitably comes with washing dishes at the sink
- Since having a dishwasher we haven't broken any glasses or plates while they're washed
- Everything is sparkling clean when it comes out, no matter how dirty it looked going in
- I pile dirty dishes inside at once, so they don't sit around on the counter top
- I don't have several soggy tea-towels to hang up every day

Since our dishwasher is very effective, we don't have to rinse anything beforehand, so there's never any doubt whether the contents are clean or unwashed.

We don't entertain as much as we used to, but a few days ago we invited a friend to join us for an evening meal. The dishwasher was almost full after lunch, so after we had our coffee I put it on and then started doing meal preparations. I made a turkey pie as we still had leftover meat in the freezer from Christmas. That meant I used a bowl for the pastry, and a pan for cooking the onions, mushrooms etc.

I made a quick chocolate dessert too, so that involved another couple of bowls; and there was also an empty 'spread' container, and two dishes from the fridge whose contents I had used as part of the meal. Plus measuring spoons and spatulas...

It doesn't look like that much:


I could have stopped, and boiled a kettle, and washed everything by hand. But some of the containers were quite greasy, so it would have taken more than one kettleful. I couldn't have fitted everything on the draining board, so it would probably have taken me at least ten minutes with a pause for drying the first load. By the end I would have developed a bit of backache. Being me, I would probably have splashed the front of my clothes, too, and I would be stressing about running out of time.

So I prepared all the vegetables instead, put the carrots and tomatoes in the oven, and sat down to relax with a book for ten minutes.

I did still have to wash a few things, but they weren't greasy and only took a couple of minutes. They fit easily on the draining board:


Shortly before our friend arrived, the dishwasher pinged and I was able to remove and put away all the clean contents from the previous day-and-a-half:

What a delight to have sparkling clean dishes with almost no effort

Having done that (which takes a couple of minutes and is still one of the most satisfying things I know of in the kitchen) I loaded in the bowls and other containers that I had used, leaving the kitchen surfaces clean and tidy. Clean, tidy surfaces make me feel much happier than cluttered ones.

We had a relaxed meal with our friend, and hot drinks afterwards. It was all very pleasant, but I was aware of the dirty plates and serving dishes etc piled in the kitchen:


Because our dining area is next to the kitchen, I was able to potter while still being part of the conversation, putting leftovers in the fridge, and then loading the dishwasher. Everything went in other than the saucepan, which had only contained broccoli, so was easy to wash in the water which was still hot from the kettle.

I'm a strong Introvert. While I enjoy having friends over, and chatting, it tends to leave me tired and somewhat drained. If I'd had to tackle the washing up after our friend left, even if it had only taken ten or fifteen minutes, I would probably have become very irritable. Alternatively I might have decided to leave it until the following morning, and would then have felt annoyed when I got up and was greeted by a pile of dirty dishes, with food hardened onto them.

Instead, the dishwasher was gently churning and I was able to go and read for a while in peace.

Many years ago we hosted a US-style Thanksgiving meal for the house group that used to meet here weekly. There were eight people, so by the end there were eight large plates, eight side plates, eight dessert dishes, eight water glasses, four or five wine glasses, coffee mugs, large amounts of cutlery, and the empty dishes from the food I had prepared (even though everyone else brought something too and took their dishes home).

As we went around the table after the meal saying what we were thankful for at that moment, my overwhelming feeling was extreme thankfulness for our dishwasher.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Complexities of Technology in Cyprus

Car Tax, part 1
In Cyprus, we don't get reminders in the mail (or even electronically) to renew car tax. We're supposed to know that it needs to be renewed every January, although it's not usually possible to do so until at least the 7th or 8th, and there's a 'grace' period until the end of February, sometimes early March.

And whereas, a few years ago, we could take the information into the co-op banks and get it dealt with by someone else there, it now has to be done at the 'jccsmart' website, a portal that allows for the payment of many bills that can't be paid directly at the bank website.

So, on Friday two weeks ago, when I was doing our weekly bookkeeping, I logged into jccsmart, and entered the information for our blue car. No problem: it recognised the combination of numberplate and the last three digits of Richard's ID, and I was able to pay for another year's tax on my debit card.  Then I tried to pay the tax on the black van which is used for our PA system, and various other loads.  A warning message appeared: it needed an MOT before tax could be paid.

Fair enough; Richard knew it was due its MOT (they happen every two years in Cyprus). He was due to be away, so took the van round the corner to our friendly mechanic, who said that he would sort it out, make any minor repairs or adjustments necessary, and have everything ready by the time he got back.

PO Box Rental, part 1
A few days later, I had to go to the Post Office to post something to the UK.

The Post Office by St Lazarus Church in Larnaka, Cyprus

We get our mail delivered to a PO Box connected to this post office, and we'd just received the reminder that our subscription had run out. We needed to pay for 2017 by the end of March. So I asked if I could pay it while I was there, as it can't be done online. I offered my debit card, and they tried to enter my details, but then said that the system wasn't working.

When we first moved here, the system was a huge hand-written ledger. It always took a minute or two for the postmistress to find our records, but there was never any problem.  For fifteen years we thought it was quaint, but very Cypriot. And it worked. Since they have a new computerised system, it has been much more complicated.

I had already tried to pay ten days earlier, and the system wasn't working then.  So the postmistress (a different one, but they get to know the regulars fairly quickly) suggested I leave the payment with her, and she would enter it the following day when the system was working again, and put a receipt in our PO Box. I could hardly leave my debit card, and didn't really want to give the details, but I had cash on me, so I handed over the amount for for two years' rental of the PO Box, and she clipped it to our reminder, with a note of our name and phone number.

Car Tax, part 2
On Friday, a week ago, I thought I would try again to pay the car tax.  Once again, the warning message about the MOT appeared.  Evidently they had not yet got around to doing it.

PO Box Rental, part 2
On Sunday I was in town, although the Post Office was closed, but I checked the PO Box anyway. Our electricity bills were there, but there was no receipt for the box rental payment. I shrugged, mentally. Perhaps the system was still down.

I thought no more about it until yesterday, when I needed to post something else, so I walked the mile or so to the Post Office again, and checked the PO Box. Our water bills were awaiting me, but still no receipt for the box rental.

So I went in to post my letter. There was a different postmistress there, looking a bit hassled (usually there are two of them), and when I asked about it, and explained, she said that 'the system' was now working but she would have to look for my payment and paperwork, and would let me know. She wrote down my name and phone number again. I was beginning to feel a little anxious, but this kind of thing usually works in Cyprus. So I hope I'll hear from her next week...

Car Tax, part Three
When I got home again, I logged onto the JCCSmart site, and entered the van information. This time, I was given the go-ahead to pay the tax. So the mechanic must have done whatever was needed, and it had passed its MOT.

However, as I was entering my debit card details, I saw that the card had expired at the end of January. Oops. A pity I hadn't realised earlier, as I came past the bank on my way home from the Post Office, as I needed to buy some fruit and vegetables. But I put on my shoes again, and walked to the bank....

New Debit Card
New debit cards don't get sent to the owners, for security reasons. But in the past when my card had expired - or when it was about to - I simply popped into the bank.  New debit cards were usually in a rather random looking pile of envelopes, and it would take the clerk a minute or two to locate mine, but it was always there.

At first, when they started issuing them, my debit cards were only valid for a year at a time. But the last time I collected one was at the end of January 2014. The one that had just expired had lasted for three years, so I had got out of the habit of popping in at the start of each year. Since then, the bank has moved to new, smarter premises, and updated their systems.

The new building where the Bank of Cyprus is now located in Larnaka

So when I handed my card to the clerk, after quite a long wait in the queue, he looked puzzled, but entered the number into his computer so he could see our bank account. I pointed at the date on the card, and said that it had expired, and I wanted my new one. He asked me if I wanted to withdraw cash. No, I told him, I just wanted a new card.

He asked if they had phoned me, to let me know it was at the bank. No, I said. When it had expired before, I came in, and they found my new one for me. He looked confused - this was not a clerk I had seen before - and went off to another office, before returning and saying that he couldn't find it. Then he turned to the clerk at the next desk, and asked him (in Greek) if he would deal with it.

The second clerk seemed to be more senior, but also went through the process of typing my card information into his computer. He clicked several things, and then said, 'Ah. Your new card has been cancelled.'

'Why?' I asked.

'Because you did not collect it in two months. It was at the bank on December 2nd. You didn't collect it so we cancelled it on January 25th.'

'But it hadn't even expired then,' I said, trying to stay calm and as assertive as I could. 'Why would you cancel it?'

'We telephoned and there was no reply,' he said. 'Maybe we have the wrong number?'

I checked, and they had both my mobile number and our house phone. I said that we were away for a couple of weeks after Christmas, and he said that perhaps they phoned then.

'So how can I get a new card?' I asked, realising it wasn't his personal fault that the card was cancelled incorrectly.  He said he would have to cancel the cancellation. He typed some more things on the computer, printed something out for me to sign, and said that there should be a card within the next few days, and that they would phone me....

Utility bills
So I came home again, realising that I still couldn't pay the van tax.

However, I knew I could pay the water and electricity bills at our bank website. I was pleased that they were rather lower than I'd expected, probably because we were away for a couple of weeks during the billing periods.

I logged into the bank site, and was greeted by a screen telling me I needed to update my details, for security reasons.  Yet more new technology.  I checked that they had correct phone numbers, address, and my passport number - no problem.  But then I had to fill in all kinds of other information about our status in Cyprus, and whether we filed taxes in other countries (we do, in the UK), and what my source of income is, and what it's estimated to be in a year.

I became more and more bewildered, since none of the categories applied to me, and I had no idea if they wanted figures relating just to me, or to both of us. But it wouldn't let me leave it until another time, so I had to make best estimates and keep going through several pages.

At last this was complete, and I was, thankfully, able to pay our electricity and water bills.

But what a performance.

When we first moved here, online banking in Cyprus didn't exist. Nor were there debit cards. We had to write cheques for our rent, and at supermarkets, with our home phone number considered sufficient identification. We also had to write cheques for utility bills and take them to the relevant offices.  Like the Post Office box rental ledgers, it was old-fashioned and non-technological.

But it worked.



Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Cold and Frosty Cyprus

I know. It happens every year. Just as we think that Spring might be around the corner, as the days get longer... wham! We're in the middle of such a cold spell that it's almost impossible to stay warm.

December was bad enough; for most of the time Tim was here, hoping for a bit of sunshine, it rained or was grey and rather miserable. But although chilly, it wasn't bitterly cold.  Perhaps ten or twelve degrees, but the cloud cover meant that it didn't get much cooler at night. And our house isn't too badly insulated, at least compared to the majority of Cyprus homes.

Since we returned from our UK trip, it's been quite sunny, around 15 degrees in the daytime. Not too bad at all, I thought. We've been running our central heating for a couple of hours morning and evening, and the house has mostly stayed reasonably warm.

On Tuesday I could see quite a few clouds so took my camera when I went for my morning walk with Sheila. The flamingoes were in evidence, but I didn't want to get any closer to the Salt Lake, and my camera doesn't have much of a zoom... but for anyone interested, those little dots are hundreds of flamingoes; clicking the small photo should take you to a larger version:

Gorgeous sunrise over the Larnaka Salt Lake, where the flamingoes come in the winter

And yes, there was a pretty sunrise too, if a little spoiled by the overhead cables....

Sunrise over the Salt Lake, spoiled rather by telephone cables in the air

But this weekend was predicted by the local paper to be the coldest in a long time. As it was due to be around 2-3 degrees this morning, I wore a very warm jacket and gloves when I went out for my walk with Sheila.  That on top of two other warm layers. I did shed the gloves after about three kilometres of fairly fast walking, but put them on again before I got home.

The cats are spending a lot of time either racing around the house looking for things to knock over...

The cat Lady Jane Grey likes high places

...or huddled up near radiators.

Alex, the large white cat, likes to curl up and sleep in the beanbag on a cold day

Jane doesn't go out at all, other than on our balcony, but Alex has always liked running around the rooftops nearby, so we let him out when he asks in the daytime. Today he's been out briefly perhaps three times, quickly returning through the incoming-only cat flap. At lunch-time I opened it for him and a blast of cold air came through. He turned and looked at me with a shocked expression. Surely I couldn't expect him to go out in THAT...?!

This morning I stayed somewhat active and warmish in the kitchen. The oven was on as I made my next month's granola, and I also needed to process 5kg tomatoes that I bought (for a euro) yesterday at the local fruit/veg stall. I made around 800ml tomato ketchup:

tomato ketchup made from fresh tomatoes

I stewed another couple of kilograms gently, then froze in four portions to use in place of canned tomatoes in future.  And I also decided to dehydrate another kilogram and a half, to give me dried tomatoes to use in one of our favourite bread recipes.

sliced tomatoes dehydrating in my Lakeland dehydrating gadget

The dehydrator gives out a lot of hot air. While it's not exactly an efficient way to heat the kitchen, it's a great by-product at this time of year.

Even so, I gave the central heating an extra hour boost twice during the daytime, something I almost never do. Just as well it's only infrequently this cold.

Here's what the hourly weather forecast showed when I checked it just a few minutes ago:

chilly days ahead according to the forecast for Larnaca, Cyprus

Yes, it's due to be down to zero degrees, freezing point, by 8.00pm.

Still, I really don't mind the cold weather nearly as much as I dislike the heat and humidity of Cyprus in Summer.