Monday, May 28, 2018

Overuse of plastic in Cyprus

At the end of the catch-up post I wrote last week, I mentioned that Cyprus was supposed to be reducing the amount of plastic used. It's such a problem here that I think this topic is worthy of a post in its own right.  Plastic bottles and some cartons are recycled here; I just put out our last month's worth of paper and 'PMD' (plastic, metals, drinks) recycling, before starting this post, and was struck by the irony that we have to place our items in designated non-recyclable plastic bags....

Whatever people think of the problems of global warming and wherever they stand politically, I don't think there's any doubt that we humans use far too much unnecessary plastic. A lot of it ends up in the sea, and causes serious damage to marine life. If you haven't seen the stories (and some horrific images) then a quick online search for 'marine life plastic' (or similar) should set the scene.

One issue which recently hit the news is the over-use of plastic straws. When we were in the UK recently I looked for paper straws, which I remember from my childhood, but could not find them. There are some available at vast price online, but mostly intended for parties, with bright patterns and colours.  They did not appeal. I've seen re-usable straws made of metal or silicon, but am a tad dubious about the difficulties of washing them sufficiently between uses.

We don't use straws in the winter, but in the summer I make frappés rather than hot coffees after lunch, and we like to drink them through straws.  I was wondering if we could learn to drink them without straws at all, when I came across an article online about a restaurant which had started using straws made of pasta.  When we were in Metro I checked what was available - we don't cook pasta, other than wholegrain spaghetti and the occasional lasagne, so I had not previously looked - and found that long macaroni was available. It was even on special offer.  Sealed in plastic, of course... but still, we thought it worth trying.

The weather has been hot, so we've been drinking frappés for the past couple of weeks now, and have become quite accustomed to these longer-than-usual but very effective straws:

We can't decide if there's a slight taste to them or not. It's not a problem, anyway, and even though we have to throw them away after each use (we tried rinsing them out but they cracked and couldn't be used again) they are biodegradable.  If a family who eats this kind of pasta used them, they could probably rinse them out and store them in the freezer until there were sufficient to cook for a meal, and that would be even more efficient.

One of the biggest uses of plastic used to be the flimsy carrier bags given away by supermarkets. I say 'used to be...' because in most of Europe there are now charges for carrier bags; customers are encouraged to bring their own, either stronger re-usable plastic ones, or those made of cloth.  I recall a bit of negative muttering about it when this was first introduced in the UK, but most people are reasonable, and if nothing else could see that it costs something to produce each plastic bag.

In Cyprus, however, we tend to lag behind most of mainland Europe.  At the end of 2010 when Lidl supermarkets first came to the island, they were unusual in not giving away free carrier bags. We were not in the habit of taking our own at the time, and found this a bit irritating, but realised it was reasonable. We bought some of their heavy-duty carriers, and once or twice bought the inexpensive ones. We only went there rarely, at first, anyway.

Almost a year ago, Cyprus was warned that it should do something about the immense amount of plastic wastage. We read that a 5 cent charge on carriers would be imposed from 1st July 2018, and that in January supermarkets could introduce a 2 cent charge, to help customers become used to the idea. We decided to make more of an effort, so it's now become a habit to take cloth bags with us either to supermarkets or the local fruit shop.

I don't know what can be done about the small produce bags which are used in the fruitarias.  Here's a typical few euros' worth of fruit and veg:

I don't put everything in produce bags, but when buying - for instance - apples or oranges, it's important to use either the pink, green or blue bags because they're a code for the cashiers, to establish which aisle they're from. I use a lot of 'pink bag' produce, in the reduced section of the shop.  Even if that were not a problem, it would be impossible for them to weigh everything separately if I simply piled my selection into a trolley without bagging items separately.

However, even reducing the main carrier bags should make a difference.  We assumed that when the shops opened after the New Year break, they would have a two cent charge for carriers. But January came and went, and carrier bags were given away just as they had been before. Cashiers no longer started putting things in carriers automatically, or not so readily - but perhaps that's because they got used to us, and some of our friends, taking our own bags.

In the UK, prior to the introduction of the charge for plastic bags, a lot of the supermarkets ran promotions on 'bags for life', and cloth bags with logos. We haven't seen any of those here, until - as mentioned in the previous post - we saw an advert in Metro for trolley bags.  They seem to fit any large trolley and we think they're a great idea. So here's another photo of them in use:

Cutting down on plastic is a slow process. Each family who adopts a cloth bag or non-plastic straw may feel as if it makes no difference; but, as is oft-repeated, the ocean is made up of tiny drops of water.

If anyone has other recommendations for cutting down on unnecessary plastic, feel free to leave a comment.  

Monday, May 21, 2018

Three months slipped by...

I knew it was a while - too long - since I last wrote on this blog. I'm shocked to find that it's almost three months. I've thought, more than once, about a blog post in recent weeks, but no one topic stood out as blog-worthy.  However,  the longer I leave it the harder it will be to get back into it... so I've grabbed a few of my photos for a whistle-stop tour of life in Cyprus, from my perspective, since the end of February.

Immigration and Citizenship
My last post was about our visit to Immigration, and the successful granting of yellow slips. That was a huge relief. They demonstrate that we are living here legally as European citizens, and - in theory, anyway - there are no expiry dates. What will happen after the UK leaves the EU is still unknown, so Richard is still hoping to acquire Cyprus citizenship.

The next stage in that process was to get a criminal record bureau check, something that is fairly common around the world now, for people working with children or other vulnerable folk. Neither of us had needed one before, but in the event it was straightforward. We drove to Nicosia, found the correct police department, submitted paperwork (and twenty euros), then went and had coffee.

I was mildly amused by this sign we spotted as we walked back to the office, suggesting we might want 'criminal record certificates'.  Happily everything was straightforward, and Richard now has a piece of paper stating that he has not committed any crimes.  This wasn't just backdated a few days to the granting of our yellow slips, so we still don't know why we needed them!  Our Alien Registration Cards, which we have had for over twenty years, have the same ID on them.

So we scanned and printed this document, and the yellow slips, and added them to the enormous pile of paperwork necessary for Richard to apply for citizenship.  We had to pay 500 euros just to submit it all; someone glanced through the paperwork and at first said that it was no good because he only had the yellow slip for a few days. So he came home, and wrote a note explaining why we didn't have them for our first twenty years here, and the following morning a different official accepted it. They didn't need all 1000 sheets of documentation, but they glanced at some, and took copies of all they required, plus of course the application form itself.

The next step will be an interview, but that could be anything from six months' time through to about six years.

Our guest flat has been very busy this year, with friends, friends-of-friends, acquaintances, and (currently) acquaintances of local friends. At the start of March, four friends came out for a week; one of them worked hard trying to get Richard's work accounts in order for last year, and the others relaxed and had a holiday. One evening they took us out for a meze at Kura Georgina, which is probably our current favourite restaurant, with the added bonus of being within walking distance.

One thing we particularly like about it is the fresh fruit platter offered 'on the house' as dessert:

In the background are some candied fruits, also part of the dessert, and a few minutes later we were given some loukomades, but were so full we could barely eat them.

I usually post photos of yellow wild flowers in Cyprus in March. There were, indeed, many of them. But for a change, here's rather a pretty pink plant that was also in bloom around the Salt Lake trail in March:

Long-term readers of this blog (if there are any...) might remember that last October we employed our teenage friend Jacob and his worker Mike to transform our side yard into a little garden, complete with artificial grass and some custom-built wooden planters.  We bought a random selection of small shrubs and other plants at local places, and were given a few extras by a neighbour.

We're not great with plants in general, and most of them weren't labelled so we didn't know what kind of watering or sun/shade situation they would need... nor do we know whether they will survive the summer, even supposing we manage to give them sufficient water.  But this is how one part was looking at the start of April - the rest of the plants, likewise, seem to be blooming.  So far, anyway.

Fresh air and walking
We're both quite keen on fresh air where possible, and during the last couple of months have sat outside in the garden swing to drink our after-lunch coffees.  I'm still walking three mornings a week, first thing, with my friend Sheila. When we get back, we sit in the swing to cool off a little, and chat.

Richard was beginning to feel a lack of exercise, but he is not, in any sense, an early bird. So we thought we might try a few late afternoon or evening walks.  I think we've managed three so far.  More than once we have been put off - or forced to return after only a short walk - due to increased levels of dust in the Cyprus air.  This usually happens during one weekend each spring, but this year has happened several times.  It was particularly bad one Sunday when we planned to walk... so we didn't get far:

National Days
25th March and 1st April are always public holidays here. If they fall on weekdays, schools have days off, and banks and some other institutions are closed. There are parades along the sea front and some of the side streets, and we used to go and watch - over twelve years ago now! - when our older son was in the town band.

We never can remember which of these dates is Greek National Day and which is Cyprus National Day. 1st April this year was also the Western rite Easter Sunday, so we went to the local Anglican church for morning service. All the other churches we know of, including other Protestant ones, celebrate Greek (Eastern rite) Easter, which this year was on April 8th.

Walking back from the service, we had to pause while part of a parade went past:

Since the Greek flag is clearly in evidence, and there was blue and white bunting, we assumed that it must have been Greek National Day.

We were wrong. Apparently that was a week earlier, and 1st April is in fact Cyprus National Day.

UK trip
We managed to miss Greek Easter entirely, since we flew to the UK for ten days on April 5th. It was an early flight, via Blue Air, which landed mid-morning. That meant we were in plenty of time to have lunch with some close friends, before driving to stay with my father for a few days.

Our main reason for going, however, was a very special birthday celebrated by Richard's mother. Twenty-four of us gathered in a restaurant for the main party, a few days after the actual birthday. Since all our photos contain people, who might not want to appear on a public blog, I won't illustrate it.

It was a busy ten days, catching up with quite a few family members on both sides, and seeing some friends we hadn't seen for a long time. Richard spoke at two church services and we bought various things we can't easily get hold of in Cyprus.

Although we flew out to the UK with just one suitcase, we had to fly back with two. That's partly because of various things we had bought, and partly because my generous family had given me a lot of birthday presents in advance, to save on international postage. Happily, my father had a large-size suitcase in excellent condition, which he no longer used, so he gave it to us.

After completing a knitted nativity scene in 2016, and knitting several toys for family and friends in 2017, I wanted a new project. I find knitting relaxing, and it's supposed to be good for cognitive functions... so I was delighted to find a Facebook page which coordinates knitted blankets, 'bonding squares' and other items for premature babies at hospitals in the UK.

I had some yarn in stock and bought a bit more locally, and by the time we were in the town where there's a collection point for knitted blankets, on our UK trip, I had completed five.

If anyone wants to know in more detail how this works, and what patterns I used in these blankets, I have a separate blog about knitting. The most recent post describes what I did. I've completed another one since returning to Cyprus, and several 'bonding squares' and am over half way through another large blanket.

(Bonding squares, in case anyone was wondering, are pairs of small knitted squares, identical in colour, size and pattern. When a baby must be separated from the mother, each takes one square to sleep with. Every six or eight hours, they are switched.  This enables the baby to breathe in the mother's scent, and become used to it; it also enables the mother to breathe in the baby's scent even when she cannot be near him or her, and that can aid in her milk production). 

Jam making
I usually make strawberry jam in March, and apricot jam in May.  But although strawberries started appearing in the local shops in February, as usual, they weren't all that great, and were quite expensive.  During March I watched out for special offers, but it appeared that strawberries were late this year.

Since we were away for ten days early in April, I wondered if I would miss out entirely on this year's jam-making. But a week after our return, I saw this at the local fruit stall:

3kg strawberries for 2 euros seemed like a very good deal. I used the sugar tongs that used to be my mother's to hull them quickly, and made just over eight pots of jam:

In the evening of my birthday we had our usual Friday meal with our local friends, and they gave me this lovely miniature rose, which we planted out on a balcony near our 'garden':

It's almost twelve years since we moved to this house, so it's not surprising that some appliances have started to misbehave. I wrote in October last year about having to replace our freezer.  About a month ago I turned on the knob for our oven... and the electricity went off. I thought at first it was a power cut, but went to check the power trip thing and found it had tripped off.

So I turned it on... and then, when I tried to turn the oven on again, the same thing happened.  It wasn't urgent to use the oven that day, and Richard wasn't there. So I used other methods to cook, and looked online to see if I could work out what the problem might be.

It was an Ariston oven, so I knew from TV advertisement indoctrination in the 1980s that it would go 'on and on and on and on'... which, indeed, it has.  It wasn't new when we bought the house in 2006; at a rough estimate, we think it was probably at least ten years old then.  It's worked well, on the whole, although a few times the glass front fell out and was complicated to put back. At Christmas our son Tim commented that it didn't seem to be heating as well as it should... and I had noticed it was taking much longer to warm up than it used to. 

Google told me that the most likely cause of the power tripping was that the heating element would need to be replaced.  When Richard came home, we discussed it, and - taking into account the age of the oven - decided that it would be more sensible (and not THAT much more expensive) to replace the oven.  

So, a few days later, courtesy of George Theodorou (from whom we buy all our white goods, and who offers free delivery and installation as well as pretty good prices and excellent service, when needed) our new oven was installed:

We didn't want anything fancy, and I definitely didn't want a touch screen. It had to fit exactly in the space given, and we wanted a rotary fan at the back, as well as easy-cleaning... so once we'd narrowed it down, we chose what looked like the best value.  So far, we've been very pleased.

Reducing plastic
At the start of the year, Cyprus was supposed to introduce a one-cent charge for plastic carrier bags, in preparation for the requirement to implement a higher charge in July. Most of Europe did this some years ago, but as happens in so many situations, Cyprus lags behind. We have used cloth carrier bags - when we remember - for a couple of years, now. But the locals, who don't necessarily travel outside Cyprus, are used to the free plastic carriers . Until recently, we haven't seen any real encouragement to reduce them.

But a couple of weeks ago, on what has become an every-other-month visit to Metro Supermarket, we saw an advert for trolley bags. I'd seen this idea in a catalogue and it had seemed ingenious: different sized bags, joined by velcro, which could be used in a supermarket trolley, then separated for putting into the car and carrying into the house. Metro were selling them - although they weren't easy to find! - at a better price than I had seen before.  So we decided to get some.

They would be ideal in supermarkets with self-scanning, but that hasn't come to Cyprus yet, and I doubt if it will any time soon. Still, they were fine to pack things into after they were scanned at the checkout; the blue one at the end is a cool bag but we had too much cold/frozen stuff for it to close:

I wasn't sure if these bags would fit in other supermarket trolleys, but this week we went to Lidl (also an every-other-month exercise) and they worked well there.

I was going to write even more in this post - about theatre productions, and macaroni straws, and heatwaves, and a new (to us) boat... but I've been writing for over an hour, and it's well past my bedtime.  So perhaps, if I get back in the habit of blogging, they'll be mentioned in my next post.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Immigration and Yellow Slips in Cyprus

Six years ago, we applied for 'yellow slips'. These are official papers which verify that someone is a European citizen who has the right to live in Cyprus. Rather than going over the reasons why we only applied six years ago (when we had already been living here for fourteen years), anyone interested could read this post about the requirements to apply for residency or yellow slips, as I went into the background in full. Indeed, until I re-read it a few minutes ago, I had forgotten why we didn't apply sooner.

However, as I wrote in this update about our experiences with Immigration, the authorities refused to grant us yellow slips. The lady behind the desk and her colleagues assured us that we could stay in Cyprus, as Europeans, and that we didn't need yellow slips. We already had ARCs (Alien Registration Cards) which we were given a few months after we arrived in the country, and those were all we needed.

Or so we thought.

A couple of people commented on that post, telling us that we should talk to the British high commission, since we might, at some point, require yellow slips. But we had the ARCs, and didn't really want to expend yet more time and effort trying to convince the authorities to grant us residency, since we had the right to live here anyway.

Fast forward nearly six years, and the situation is - or will be - different, since the UK will be leaving the EU in just over a year. Probably, people tell us, Brits living in European countries (and EU citizens living in the UK) will be able to stay. But nobody really knows, and we've heard of several people having trouble getting permanent residency, or settled status, or whatever is needed to guarantee their right to stay in the UK.

So Richard decided to apply for Cyprus citizenship. I'm less worried; if we had to go back to applying for yearly pink slips, or even if I had to leave the island every three months, I wouldn't be too worried. But Richard loves being here, and is involved in his ministry work, and sailing at the marina, and has no desire ever to leave.  People are eligible for citizenship after living here for seven years, and we've been here for twenty.  So it should be reasonably straightforward...

Except that this kind of thing is always remarkably complex.  The list of what he needs is huge. He has, for instance, photocopied seven years' worth of bank statements (both Cyprus and UK), electricity bills and phone bills.  These are to demonstrate that he really has lived here for all that time. He's had to go through every one of his passports to list his entries and exits, and how many days he was here - and he travelled quite a bit when we first moved here.

He had to get newly certified copies of his birth certificate and our marriage certificate, and the deeds of our house. He's had to find three Cypriots to agree to recommend him, and also had to advertise in the local paper that he's applying for citizenship. And a great deal more which I've forgotten.  He's done these things in odd moments when his busy schedule allowed and it's taken several months to gather everything together.  He needed just a few more things, one of which was a 'police check' in Nicosia, to guarantee that he hasn't committed any crimes while living here.

A few weeks ago, he drove up to Nicosia. The police said that they couldn't do a criminal record check without him having a yellow (or pink) slip. Even though they clearly had a record of his existence, based on his ARC. When he said that we had been refused yellow slips six years ago, and told we didn't need them, they said that Larnaka Immigration were wrong, and we needed to have them.

Immigration Office in Larnaka, Cyprus

So he went to Immigration, and they said we could have a regular appointment at the end of March, or an 'extra' appointment on February 23rd.  There are so many people going to Immigration at present that they're slotting in an extra appointment every week day, at 1.00pm or later... but anyone having an 'extra' appointment is advised to arrive at 10.00am and wait, because if anyone else doesn't turn up, then they'll get seen earlier.

And they gave us the same form we had to fill in last time, along with the same poorly written instructions, badly photocopied and almost unreadable in places.

So, over the last week, we have gathered together the same documents we needed last time. We had our bank statements stamped, and copied; we made sure we had up-to-date medical insurance records. We printed the information about the pension Richard gets from the BBC, which he started receiving a couple of years ago. Then we checked and double-checked that we had originals and copies of everything current, including our passports and the ARCs.

This pile of paperwork, organised into originals and copies, is only about a third of the size of the pile of paper that Richard needs for citizenship.  At least Immigration only want the most recent three months' worth of bank statements, not six years' worth, and they don't need to see utility bills.

We were both quite stressed about it. And whereas, last time, we assumed everything would go smoothly, we were a lot more concerned this time. We asked people to pray for us, and were assured that many were doing so.

The sun was shining and it wasn't too chilly when we arrived at Immigration a little before 10.00am yesterday.  We went to the secretarial office, and said that we were the 'extra' appointment, and the lady there called out to the next-door office in Greek, with the word 'extra' rather prominent.

We sat outside and chatted a bit.  I read a chapter or two of the book I'd brought with me, and we watched the other applicants coming and going. Most of them looked like Eastern Europeans, with a few Asians - probably maids or other domestic workers. Some of them were with a Cypriot, who was probably their boss.

Some people relaxed on the hard benches with books and snacks, enjoying the sunshine.  Some paced about.  Lots of them smoked.  They evidently had appointments at fixed times; as one person or couple came out, others went in. Occasionally one of the Immigration officers came out and called someone's name.  Many other people went into the secretarial offices, probably making appointments for weeks ahead.  Some folk left and returned half an hour later, perhaps with paperwork they had forgotten.

And we sat on the bench at the end of the porch, as far away from the smoking as we could be, wondering if we would really have to wait until one o'clock...

Around 11.30 there was only one other person waiting outside.  An Immigration officer came out and called a name a few times, but there was no response. Someone came out of the secretarial section and chatted to her, and then she went back inside. Then she came out again, and asked us if we had an appointment. We said we were the 'extra' appointment, so she asked our names, and then invited us in.

She quickly realised that we had all our paperwork well-organised, so after taking our passports and ARCs, she simply requested the copies of all our documents. She didn't even look at the originals. When she got to the bank statements, she asked about Richard's pension and he showed her where it was credited. We said that we receive other income - gifts from supporters - but she didn't ask anything about those, just nodded.

When she started typing information into her computer, we became hopeful. When she printed and handed us receipts for our payments (twenty euros each - it's gone up in six years!) we knew everything was almost certainly okay. Then we had to have our photos taken, and within about ten minutes of going into the office, our yellow slips were printed and handed to us.  No expiry, the lady told us, because we are Europeans.

I asked what would happen when the UK is no longer part of the EU, and she said that she wasn't sure, but thought the yellow slips would still be valid. We could apply for permanent residency for extra security, she said, but told us not to do so until they know what's happening, and what they are supposed to do. Richard told her that he's applying for naturalisation/citizenship, and she said that yes, that would mean he didn't need to do anything else. But she didn't think there would be a problem anyway.

We decided to have lunch out to celebrate.  We went to Gloria Jeans after walking along the sea-front deciding against most of the other places, and had paninis and coffee... they even had coconut milk.

So at last, after twenty years in Cyprus, we have yellow slips. We are extremely thankful and relieved.  Next week, Richard can have his criminal record check.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Flamingoes by the Salt Lake... and a few older board games

After a fairly dry and mild end to last year, and indeed beginning of January, the weather turned colder about ten days ago. We had some torrential rain - when it decides to rain here, it doesn't usually drizzle gently. It pours... I don't know if it's helped the reservoirs, which once again are much lower than they ought to be, but it's certainly helped the ground and the wild flowers locally.

On Tuesday morning, I grabbed my camera as I set off to walk with my friend Sheila; it had stopped raining so I knew it would be muddy, and hoped we might see a few flamingoes on the Salt Lake. The sun was shining and there were puddles every few metres, which we mostly managed to avoid:

Some years, the Salt Lake is quite full by this time of year, but even after a couple of days of extensive rain, there's still a lot of 'beach' showing:

We quickly saw flamingoes, although in this picture they just look like pink dots:

Here they are a little closer - there are thousands of them!

As we neared the Airport Road, we walked down onto the sandy area near the lake, and saw these baby flamingoes, still white rather than pink.  If you look carefully, you'll see a long row of pink ones in the background too:

We managed to get closer than I've ever been before without disturbing the birds:

flamingoes on the Larnaka Salt Lake, January 2018

However, although they didn't display any alarm, they did start walking away. And as we were trying to get closer still, as stealthily as possible, we were startled by a shout to keep away by someone with a large camera, perhaps a journalist or other professional, who was trying to photograph them from the road.

As we returned, we saw odd markings on the sand - evidently flamingo footprints!

We finished the walk, then sat and chatted for a few minutes on our garden swing, as we usually do. Then Sheila departed as two of her daughters had to get to their piano lessons, and I sorted out our breakfasts. Around ten o'clock Sheila's daughter K arrived with some knitting which had gone slightly wrong; so I helped her un-knit a few stitches and set her on the right path.

Shortly afterwards Sheila arrived with her two youngest daughters, after their piano lessons, and they decided to spend a couple of hours building and playing imaginary games with Lego.  K started reading one of my Chalet School books... so I suggested Sheila and I play some of my older two-person board games, which I recently brought up from our guest flat. I had planned to teach them to her daughters but they were all otherwise occupied.

We started with Quandary, a game which apparently originated in the early 1970s. I remember playing this regularly with a close school friend when she was at our house in my mid-teens.  It's a simple game to learn, but quite complex to think ahead. We played three rounds, all of them fairly quick:

The multi-coloured board game Quandary, easy to learn, tricky to win!

I then opened Octago, a game which I don't ever remember playing.  Apparently it came out in the mid 1980s, so either it belonged to one of my sons, or - more likely - we bought it at the Thrift Shop when we moved to Cyprus. It's a game a bit like draughts/checkers, with the variation that pieces can turn rather than (or in addition to) moving.

It was quite a good game, though neither of us really worked out any strategies. I won in the end, but it took me a lot longer than it should have done to capture the final piece.

The 1985 board game Octogo, a little like draughts with the option of turning the pieces

I then got out Kensington, a game which apparently didn't come out until 1979. I had thought it was earlier than that. It's very efficiently packed, in what appears to be a record sleeve (for those who remember records...).  I don't remember being particularly good at it - and, indeed, after initial frustrations as neither of us were getting anywhere, Sheila won rather resoundingly...

The Kensington board game, featuring hexagons and tricky strategies

We were interested to note that Octogo claims to be for ages six and older, Kensington for ages seven to 107, and Quandary for ages ten plus.  We thought that Quandary was probably the easiest of the games to understand, and the one most likely to be enjoyed by Sheila's daughters at some point.  I would have rated it 7+.  Octogo, we thought, was a bit more complex and easier to make mistakes; probably fine for a game-playing child of seven, but I'd have rated it as 8+.  As for Kensington, it's quite a long game and difficult to get anywhere.  I wouldn't really recommend that for anyone under the age of ten. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

A fortnight in January in Cyprus

I decided I would write a blog post each Saturday this year. I managed it once.  I'm not sure what happened last Saturday, but evidently I didn't write anything. I haven't taken many photos this month, either. Rather a contrast to last Summer, when the family were staying and I took several photos on almost every day.  One of the things I've been doing is creating our 2017 photobook on the Photobox site, a few pages at a time. I've reached the end of June, which has almost as many pages as the first five months put together.

Nearly two weeks ago, we had our friend Jacob and his employee Mike back for a few days to do some more repair work on the house. They painted balcony railings, and the spiral staircase we have outside our house, and they 'spritzed' some of the back wall. They made a cover for one of our water tanks, which was - for some strange reason - missing its cover, and they worked with Richard to encase all our external wires in trunking. One of the cables had almost perished in the sun; it should have been encased a long time ago.

We've continued playing board games regularly with our friends, and on Tuesday this week revived an old habit - we played Settlers-by-Facetime with our son Tim, who now lives in the UK.  It took a while to get everything set up and working as we hadn't done this for some years; I think the setup took as long as the game. But it worked well, and was great to have a three-player game, and chat, even if he's two thousand miles away.

On Thursday, we woke to grey skies. Sheila and I went for our walk, although the trail was somewhat muddy and there were a few spots of rain. Within about half an hour of getting home, it started to pour.  Thankfully I had brought in the laundry I did the previous day. In Cyprus, when it does rain, it can be torrential.  There were high winds and hours of rain; the sun came out briefly a couple of times, but mostly the sky was grey. We had a few drips of water through the roof, but mostly it was fine. We had to use our electric water heater to get hot water for showers, as there was no solar heating at all. And it was cold. It had been a mild winter so far, but the house felt very chilly.

Yesterday Richard did the annual UK tax returns. It's not a task he relishes, though I do the bookkeeping through the year so it isn't too hard to get the figures we need to enter. He was quite frustrated by the whole process, as the UK government website seemed to be extremely slow. However, he finished eventually, and in celebration I made his fifteenth cake (out of sixty) for his 60th birthday year. It was a simple microwave chocolate mug cake with Bournville chocolate squares pushed into it; a little dry, but the melted chocolate helped:

It filled the large mug we bought for this purpose, and made two good sized portions:

In the afternoon, the entire Internet seemed to slow down. I don't usually notice when it's a bit slower than usual, but I was trying to print the statements from our two bank accounts and credit card, and I couldn't get some of them to load at all. No problem with the Cyprus bank, but the UK one, which is usually very quick, was unbelievably slow.  

Richard, meanwhile, was trying to download some videos for work, which he had to edit. He was already somewhat frustrated as the work computer had broken down twice in the past couple of weeks. The first time he took it to Nicosia and they cleaned something; the second time, they took it to the Apple dealer, who said it had a hardware fault and they would replace it free of charge... which is fine, but meant Richard was without his main editing computer for several days. So he hooked up his laptop to the system, which wasn't entirely satisfactory... and then the Internet appeared to grind to a halt.

He phoned our Internet provider, and they said that two major cables that connect Cyprus with the rest of the world had been cut.  This news article confirms it. The authorities don't seem to know why... but by this morning, thankfully, it seemed to be much better.  

Saturday, January 06, 2018

The Twelfth Day of Christmas

While I'm not rigid about traditions, nor superstitious, I like to take our Christmas decorations down before January 6th. It's what I grew up doing, and it always feels like the right thing to do. The Christmas season is finishing; today is a public holiday in Cyprus for Epiphany.  Schools have been closed since just before Christmas and will re-open on Monday. That's not relevant to us, but somehow it makes the past week feel like a relaxed, post-Christmas period before the year gets going.

I thought my young friends might like to help me take decorations down on Tuesday, but their oldest sister was still here, back from the United States for two-and-a-half weeks, and she had been asking to play our game Dixit. So Sheila and her four daughters came over for the morning, and we played Dixit, followed by a few rounds of Ligretto. Then I taught them Kingdominoes, the new game which Tim bought us for Christmas.

So the decorations stayed up for a few days longer, which was appropriate as we finished the mince pies and various cakes. And on Friday, I took everything down. Four more Christmas cards had arrived that morning, so I put them, with the others for this year, in a large jiffy bag to put up in December.  I packed the decorations away, probably more efficiently than my small friends would have managed, and then started to take the tree apart.  Helped - or not - by Alex:

Alex is the kind of cat who accepts pretty much anything. He's good-natured and friendly and doesn't mind things changing around him. His sister Jane, by contrast, doesn't like anything to disrupt her day. So she spent the morning racing around the living room, clearly very disturbed by the fact that all the decorations were going away. She wasn't too pleased when they went up, but she'd got used to them. And now we were making yet more changes...

Today, when Richard went out, I set to work to dust and clean the house, as I usually do on Saturdays, after changing the sheets on our bed. The trouble with dusting is that it makes me notice when things are out of place, now that more surfaces are visible without decorations on them. I re-organised a couple of bookshelves, to make space for some new or recently read books and I also did a couple of loads of laundry. I sorted out the closets on our landing, too; one of them has central heating pipes running through it, so does duty as a kind or airing cupboard in the winter. It's useful on damp days, when the laundry is almost - but not quite - dry.  But there were other things in there, including several pillows that we've acquired recently, and a duvet that belongs in our guest flat..

Once I've started this kind of thing, I tend to keep going until it's finished. I don't know how many times I went up and down the stairs, moving books and bedding. And I still hadn't finished the dusting.  I started about 10.30am and didn't finish until almost 1.00pm.  After lunch I swept and mopped and vacuumed, and the house does look and feel a lot fresher and cleaner, which is good. But Jane was even more disturbed by all the movement, and since I kept going she decided to attack Alex instead. It wasn't just play-fighting, but the ears-back growling vicious fighting that she does when she sees another cat outside, or when Alex comes in smelling of another cat. He takes the brunt of anything that annoys her.

However, after I'd eventually finished, and showered, and sat down at the computer to check email and Facebook, Jane was happy again.

Sometimes traditions or schedules are the only way we get things done. We've been saying for months that we need to play more of our board games. We play Settlers of Catan and/or Cities and Knights at least once a week with our close friends. We don't forget simpler games such as Dixit, Ticket to Ride, or Kingdom Builder, and we're not going to forget Kingdominoes; it's the kind of game that we'll probably play fairly often when we have a spare half hour or so after another game.

But other games - in particular Puerto Rico, Agricola, Above and Below, and Grand Austria Hotel - are a great deal more complicated. So we don't tend to play them very often - and then, when we do, we have to re-read the rules and it takes awhile to get into them. But equally they're not games we want to play too often. About once a month works well.  So we decided that we'll play one of them per week, on a Saturday evening.  If we remember...

Monday, January 01, 2018

Twelve cakes ... and a Happy New Year!

Back in the middle of October, just before Richard celebrated his 60th birthday, I made a rather rash comment. I had baked an early birthday cake when we had a meal with some friends, the weekend before the actual birthday. One of the friends asked how many birthday cakes he was going to have altogether.

'Sixty, I should think,' I said, without really thinking it through. I thought they might laugh and then I'd say, 'Well, maybe three...'.  I had already baked his 'official' cake, a Christmas style 'celebration' cake to be eaten when we had his birthday barbecue, and I was planning to make one for the actual birthday. 

Instead, everyone seemed to think it was an excellent idea. I said, quickly, that it would be sixty cakes over the course of the next year, not just in October. And then, when I told one of my sons about it, he said that of course they should be sixty different cakes. Even more of a challenge. There are about ten or so different cakes that I make fairly regularly, and I knew I had recipes for many more... and, if I run out of cakes from recipe books, the Internet is an excellent source too.

So, for the record, here is a collage of the twelve cakes made so far, in eleven weeks:

The first was a basic chocolate fudge cake, with raspberry jam filling (I am being specific here; as I near the end of the sixty, I may resort to a chocolate fudge cake with apricot jam filling and claim that as different).  Second, for the actual birthday, was a no-bake chocolate biscuit cake.  Richard was given a book of mug cake recipes for his birthday, and people had started commenting on the calorific nature of my project, so on the Sunday after his birthday I made us a chocolate-chip-banana mug cake which rose very well, and prompted us to buy a new, large mug for future mug cakes.

The fourth cake was the official rich fruit cake, which Richard ate (with help from a few friends) over the next few weeks. I made a Christmas cake too, which isn't yet finished, but since that was the same recipe, and was for Christmas, I haven't included that in the list. 

Next was another mug cake - a coconut one with chocolate topping - and then I baked a victoria sandwich (albeit in the food processor) with apricot jam filling.  I then tried yet another mug cake recipe, one using a few frozen berries; it didn't grow much, so looked very small in the mug; but was delicious. 

The next few cakes were made for the pre-Christmas and Christmas season, but I counted them in my list.  First a chocolate chip applesauce cake, which was a bit undercooked for some reason, but all the better for having a sauce part at the bottom.  Gingerbread is something I always make at this time of year; we still have a lot of that left, some of it in the freezer.  For a slightly healthier option I made a chocolate chip cookie cake with chickpeas rather than flour, and the end of that was enjoyed by someone who can't take gluten.

For Christmas Day, as an alternative to mince pies and Christmas pudding, I made a lemon drizzle cake, which was much appreciated.  And the twelfth cake, made yesterday, was a chocolate banana cake to take to a New Year's Eve meal with our friends. The recipe recommended a rich icing with 175g chocolate and 150g icing sugar (among other things) but I decided to take it un-iced, and it was still very good.

(I have included links to relevant pages on my recipes blog for four of the above cakes. The rich fruit cake is Delia's 'celebration' cake with home-made marzipan and royal icing rather than nuts on top. If anyone happens to read this and would like recipes for any of the other cakes, let me know in the comments and I will write them up - with my own instructions and comments, of course - on the recipe blog). 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

A few more Cyprus quirks...

Although we've lived in Cyprus for twenty years now, there are still occasions when we smile, or roll our eyes, and mutter, 'This is Cyprus!' It's a phrase used by Cypriots as well as ex-pats, often with a sense of pride in the way the island functions. Below are three recent examples:

1.  Central heating pump

Our main floor and the upstairs have separate pumps in our central heating system. About a year ago, we weren't getting any heat on our main floor. Not such a problem in Cyprus as it would be in, for instance, the UK; but some days are decidedly chilly. Our builder recommended a central heating engineer who came to have a look. He said we needed a new pump, so we asked him to fit one. However, instead of buying a new one, he found one that was being discarded by a school, and fitted that. The heating worked - mostly - for the rest of the winter.

But by the time it got cold again a few weeks ago, it was obvious we needed another replacement. Richard decided we would buy one ourselves, and then just ask a plumber to fit it, rather than risk another poor quality one. We went to a suitable local shop, where we were told that yes, they could sell us the exact same pump as our original one but that they recommended another which worked the same and was half the price. We would have bought the most expensive one if they hadn't been so insistent that their own brand was as good (and guaranteed). It was a positive 'This is Cyprus!' moment.

So we asked the shop if they had a recommended engineer who could fit it; preferably one who speaks English.  Yes, they told us, we should speak to George.  I don't know how many scraps of paper we've seen over the years with a phone number and the name 'George'.  Richard phoned him, and he said he would come later that day, or the following morning.

We waited, but nobody appeared. So Richard called, and he said yes, he would come later in the day.  He didn't.  He had many good reasons for not coming when he said he did, but after about the fifth day we were starting to feel rather frustrated. It was a not so good 'This is Cyprus!' experience that is all too familiar.

However, he did eventually come, fitted the pump efficiently and quickly, and even told us why the gas-powered part of our water heating has never worked.  He looked at a drip on the roof and said that one of our water tanks was faulty.  He then looked at a toilet which was very difficult to flush, and made a quick adjustment.  He was competent, quick (once he got here) and charged us just €30 for his time.

2. Curtain track 

Most of the curtains in our house have pull-cords.  And for about ten years or so, they worked just fine to open them in the morning, and close them at night.

Perhaps it's not obvious from that photo, so here's a close-up of the bit we pull:

In the past few months, however, first one curtain and then a couple of others started to jam. They wouldn't open - or wouldn't close - using the pull-cord.  We thought perhaps the cord needed to be replaced, as it looked a little frayed in places, so we bought some new cord. But quickly realised, when we took one down to try and replace the cord, that the problem is in fact with the mechanism at the end of the track that guides the cords:

There are two little wheels at each end, in a metal enclosure, and they were stuck. One of them broke off completely. We realised that the pelmets with the curtain rails have probably been here for thirty years or so... and the little wheel mechanism things needed to be replaced.

So Richard took the track off, and we went to a local shop that sells curtains and fittings.  The person on duty shook her head, and said it was a 'very old' fitting, one that could not be replaced. She said we would have to replace the entire metal track with a new fitting, and that each one would cost at least €25.  Since we have ten of them in all, which will need to be replaced eventually, this seemed a bit steep.  Moreover, the new track which the shop assistant showed us was exactly the same size as the one we have already. "Couldn't we buy just the new mechanism and fit it in the track?" we asked.  No, they insisted, it was too old.

Another oddity of Cyprus is that similar shops tend to congregate in the same area. So we thanked the shop assistant, and went to the next curtain shop, a couple of doors down the same street. We asked the same question.  They, too, said that our mechanisms were too old to be replaced, and that we would need a new track.

But they said it would only be €10 for the replacement.

We were startled at such a price difference, but thought we might as well pop into the third curtain shop that was in the same street, just another couple of doors down.

This time, however, the assistant assured us that yes, 'of course' we could replace the old mechanisms. They don't have them in stock right now, she said, but they could get some in. No, we don't need to make an order, just come back next Friday.  The cost?  €5 for two.

Yes, 'This is Cyprus!'

So, we'll go back there next week and see if they really can provide an exact replacement.

3.  Airport parking

Larnaka's old airport was replaced many years ago with a new, improved and mostly pretty efficient airport.

Unfortunately,  they have never really sorted out how the parking works.

At first, when dropping someone off or meeting a flight, there was twenty minutes of free parking in the short-term car park. If one parked for longer, there was a parking cost, but it wasn't too excessive. Of course, we, like many of our friends, would sometimes go back to the car after fifteen minutes, drive it out of the car park and then park somewhere else, so as to avoid paying - but in most cases, twenty minutes was plenty.

Then they started charging for all parking.  So people started not using the car park; instead they (and we..) would drive around while waiting for a call, or have one person get out to meet arriving guests, while the driver would find somewhere to stay temporarily, until a phone call alerted them of the arrival. But more and more people did this, and the roads around the airport became clogged, and then the authorities started putting up barriers, or cones, to stop even temporary parking.  They blocked off some of the car parks completely... but the main short-stay car park really isn't big enough.  So at times when we do want to park, sometimes Richard drives around for five minutes or more, just looking for a space.

On Wednesday morning we took Tim to the airport.  We decided to go in with him for half an hour or so, and were there in plenty of time. As usual, the car park looked absolutely packed. So Richard dropped Tim and me near the entrance while he went to look for a parking space.  We thought the airport would be heaving with people, as it often is, given the number of cars that were parked.

To our surprise, it was extremely quiet. There was no queue at all, so Tim checked his luggage in immediately.  Apparently the flight was almost empty.  We sat down and chatted for a while, and during that time saw very few people. Evidently December 27th is not a popular time for flying out of Cyprus. There didn't seem to be many arrivals, either.

So we were not just saying, 'This is Cyprus' in a frustrated way about the lack of parking spaces at the airport, we were genuinely puzzled:  why, with so few people in the airport, was the car park as full as ever...?

We wondered if it was long-term parking, for people who had gone away for a week or two over Christmas, but thought that was unlikely, as there's a separate covered long-term car park.  Could it be for staff?  No, they too have their own separate car park.

Then I discovered that instead of the long-term car park being better value than the short-term one for more than 24 hours of parking, it's more expensive. Indeed, the airport site actually suggests that people consider long-term parking in the short-term car park.

No wonder there's such a problem.  But... 'This is Cyprus!'