Thursday, November 02, 2017

Transforming our Side Yard

Our house has no garden or area at the back, but two side yards. Both have carports, and for years we used them to park cars. One of the side yards has access to our boiler room, and a tool shed, and also has the washing line for our guest flat. But the other side yard is narrower, and our current car is too wide to fit under the carport. It was wasted space until the summer, when our grandchildren were here.

We cleared away the accumulated clutter, and swept it, and installed a paddling pool and sandpit, and - when it wasn't too hot - it became a useful space. But very unattractive. When the family departed at the end of August, we both started thinking that it would be nice to make it more usable year-round. Could we lay artificial grass, for instance...?  That's something we both rather despised twenty years ago when we first came to Cyprus. But real grass is very difficult to grow here, requiring constant weeding and watering, and even then it doesn't look great. And we didn't want to have to dig up all the concrete tiles.

Then I suggested I could buy Richard a barbecue for his 60th birthday in October. He quite liked that idea.  So he took a photo of the side yard and played around with it on his computer, and suggested we might do something like this:


I wasn't sure about the bougainvillea; they tend to leave pink bracts everywhere, and aren't too successful in pots anyway. But the basic idea was good. We decided to ask our friend Jacob (of Pallet Studio Cyprus) to build some planters for the far end. We both thought a stone barbecue would be much nicer than any other kind.  So we started looking...


Those are some that we quite liked... but they felt a bit too big, and somewhat pretentious for our little yard.  And they were also very expensive.  And when we enquired about them, they were all out of stock, or couldn't be delivered for another six weeks, or weren't being made any more.

We looked at artificial grass, too, but again there wasn't anything we particularly liked, and it all looked remarkably pricey, and the thought of the effort involved seemed immense. It wasn't just laying the grass, but repairing and re-painting the walls, which were very scruffy.

It was all rather discouraging.

Then, after working in Nicosia for a day, Richard popped into Leroy Merlin, a large DIY store on the outskirts, and saw a barbecue that he liked a lot better than any other we'd seen:


It was nearing the end of barbecue season, and I was concerned that this, too, would be unavailable. So on 25th September we drove to Nicosia. We needed one or two other things in the shop, and wandered around several parts we hadn't seen before. One of the first things we spotted was rolls - hundreds of them - of artificial grass.  Nicer (and much better value) than any we'd seen in any of the Larnaka shops:


We then saw square wooden tiles, exactly what we were looking for to make a path in the grass. They were on special offer, and there were only about thirty of them left. I said we should buy them and take them back with us.


So we chose the best ones, and piled them into a trolley.  We then went to talk to someone about the barbecue. There were only three left, we were told, and they were all damaged in some way. However, one of them was relatively easy to repair, and we were told we could have a hefty discount. We decided to buy it. It would have to be delivered, so we asked if rolls of artificial grass could also be delivered. Yes, they told us, but they charge per pallet for delivery. So it made more sense to buy the grass we liked and take it back with us.

We were told what glue and other things were needed to lay the grass on concrete, and then decided we should buy paint for the walls too. And a couple of plants that we liked too.... 


We spent considerably less on the supplies than we had expected to.  So we decided to ask Jacob if he and his colleague Mike would be willing to take on the whole project.

The barbecue was delivered a couple of days later. There was a slight hiatus when the delivery guys couldn't move it out of the street, as their only trolley was a pallet one, and the barbecue was too heavy. So Richard called Jacob, who came over with his stronger trolleys, and we moved it into the side yard.

Jacob looked at what we'd bought, and a plan that Richard had made, and agreed that it could work well. He gave us a reasonable quotation for doing the work, which he thought would take a few days, although they couldn't start immediately.

And so, we were all set for the transformation project. Here's how it looked before any work was started:


The first task was repairing and painting the wall, and also repainting the black paint under the car port. After a couple of days, it was already looking a great deal better:


They didn't come every day, but gradually the grass was cut and laid, the path laid out, the planters started...


Then finally, last Friday, it was all complete.  We moved our swing chair from the patio to the new 'garden'; we were surprised to find that it wasn't just good, the whole area felt peaceful and relaxing, a place we like to sit out in - at least until it gets too cold!


The one thing Richard and I did was to buy earth and plants locally, to fill the planters. Most plants aren't labelled in the shops, and the assistants didn't know their names, so we don't know what all of them are, or whether they're even suited to this kind of thing. But we love the planters, custom designed to fit the space, and we're very pleased with how they look:


On Sunday we had a few friends over to celebrate Richard's birthday a couple of weeks late, and the 20th anniversary of our arrival in Cyprus, and also to launch the barbecue and - as one friend put it - baptise the side yard. Rather literally, by immersion, as it turned out because there was rain off and on including one very heavy shower as we were all eating. But we gathered under the car port, and mostly stayed dry.

It was a longer and more complex project than we had envisaged, but we're very pleased indeed with the result. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Fourth set of twenty books read in 2017

Another brief digression from writing about life in Cyprus. With the slight connection that these books are all ones that I have in our collection (well over 3000 in all) and any local Cyprus friends are welcome to come and borrow books from me.

According to GoodReads and LibraryThing (where I upload ratings and brief reviews of everything I read) I have completed another twenty books. So that's eighty this year, so far, and I am on track - just about - to finish a hundred before the end of the year.

Once again, I'll divide the books into categories and begin with the Christian non-fiction. My aim is to read at least two of this category every month; this time I only managed three in all (I finished the fourth this morning, making my 81st book of the year).

Christian books

I began this period with a 1980s classic, 'Freed to Serve' by Michael Green. The author was quite a forward thinker, assessing what he saw as the way forward, if the church was to survive into the 21st century. Although it's not a long book, I found it quite heavy-going and only read a few pages each day. Quite thought-provoking, however.

Next I chose 'Soul Keeping' by John Ortberg. The writing is clear, and well-presented, with interesting, often self-deprecating anecdotes. I don’t know that I found any great new insights, but I found it encouraging and helpful in beginning to get a glimpse of what our souls are. Definitely recommended if you’re interested in this topic.

Then I read 'Above All' by Brennan Manning. The focus of the book is the well-known song of the same title. This was written as a devotional study of the words, and the theology behind them. Inspiring and encouraging, with a few personal anecdotes and much to ponder. A beautifully made book which would make a lovely gift, but very short. Highly recommended.

Novels

I usually aim to read about four novels per month, although it doesn't always work out that way. In addition to the eight listed here from the last couple of months, or so, I also read the teenage fiction listed in a separate section below, interspersed between them.

The first one in this period was 'When I Was Invisible' by Dorothy Koomson. About two girls with similar names, who have been friends since they were eight. A little confusing at first, but the tension builds up as things become clearer. Shocking in places, yet with an underlying theme about the importance of truth and loyalty. Highly recommended.

After such an emotive book, I wanted something light to follow. It was not difficult to choose an Adrian Plass from my books-to-reread-soon shelf, and I thoroughly enjoyed re-acquainting myself with 'The Theatrical Tapes of Leonard Thynn'. This book is third in the series that begins with ‘The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, age 37 ¾’. Despite having read it at least twice before, I found myself smiling several times, even chuckling aloud. Very highly recommended.

I next chose 'Laurie and Claire' by Kathleen Rowntree. Unsurprisingly, this is about two close friends of those names, who grow up together. It was sixteen years since I had last read this, and I remembered it as a very enjoyable read. I found it slightly sordid in places this time, and wasn't too keen on Claire. But it was very well-written.

For another light-hearted read, I opted next for 'Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit' by PG Wodehouse. I love Wodehouse's gentle satire. Literary references abound, and Bertie’s general ignorance would be irritating if it weren’t for his generosity and kindness. Very enjoyable.

Next I picked up 'Starting Over' by Robin Pilcher. An unusual setting: a farmer called Liz is trying to decide whether to allow an American firm to take over her land, and turn it into a golf course. The early chapters are a tad confusing with a lot of different characters, and there was maybe too much description in places. But all in all, I liked this very much. I had read it fifteen years ago, but had entirely forgotten what happened.

After that I chose 'Scandalous Risks' by Susan Howatch. I last read this in 2001, and it was probably my least favourite of the excellent Starbridge series about ministers in the Church of England in the 20th century. It's very well written, gripping and believable, but rather sordid and depressing in places, too.

I don't have many unread books on my shelves at present, but there are still a few. One of them was 'Clouds among the Stars' by Victoria Clayton. A brilliant opening sentence followed by some rather depressing and unpleasant chapters, covering issues not usually included in light fiction. It follows the lives of a big and bohemian family, narrated by the 22-year-old middle daughter. However, the writing is good, and it picks up after the first third; so much so that I could barely put it down by the end. I didn't think it was as good as others by this author, but still worth reading.

I followed that with another new book: 'The Secrets of Happiness' by Lucy Diamond. It's about two very different step-sisters who have never been close. But they're thrown together by a dramatic incident in the first chapter. Rather informal writing, with some excellent characterisation, even if some of the minor characters are a tad caricatured. My main grip is the excessive amount of bad language, which I found quite disturbing. Other than that, though, I thought it an excellent read.

Teenage fiction

Interspersed with novels intended for adults, I like to re-visit some of my childhood and teenage favourite. They are ideal for reading over just two or three evenings, when I want something well-written but very light. Along with re-reading my favourite novels, I'm re-reading my collections by favourite children's authors too.

An easy choice was 'Jane and the Chalet School' by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. This series is some of my most important comfort reading, and this one is the 51st in the original Chalet School series. By the time I reach the end of the series, I will probably be ready to start from the beginning again. Most of this book is standard Chalet School fare with moments of high drama. But it didn't feel 'samey'. I liked it very much, and thought it covered some new ground. Only of interest to fans of mid-20th century schoolgirl fiction, however.

A couple of weeks ago I finished re-reading (for probably the sixth or seven time)'Good Wives' by Louisa May Alcott. It's a wonderful book, written as the direct sequel to 'Little Women'. It begins three years later as Meg March embarks on married life. Some humour, and a very sad, though inevitable chapter towards the end. Some moralising author intrusion, typical for the period, but even that is written a little tongue-in-cheek. Highly recommended for anyone who has read 'Little Women'.

More recently I re-read 'When the Siren Wailed' by Noel Streatfeild. This is an excellent story about some London children who were evacuated just before World War II. Realistic, showing the deprivation and fears of families in the war, and very well written. Highly recommended for anyone interested in this topic, adults or older children.

Younger children's fiction

Once again, I'm including 'chapter' books I read aloud for the first time to my three-year-old grandson, who was here with his family until almost the end of August.

I was a bit surprised when this book arrived in my lap with a request to read it, but my grandson was very taken with Dick King-Smith's 'Mr Ape'. I read it at least three times to him, and others in the family read it aloud as well. It's the story of an elderly man who lives on his own, and gradually starts to keep more and more animals in his large stately home. Good writing, with an enjoyable pace and quite an exciting climax.

We then moved on to 'The Hiccups at No 13' by Gyles Brandreth. I must have picked this up at a charity shop somewhere, and had not previously read it. It's the story of 9-year-old Hamlet Brown, whose family are all actors. And Hamlet gets a bad attack of hiccups... It's quite amusing, and I think I enjoyed it as much as my grandson did, at least the first time I read it aloud.

I then decided we would embark on 'Sophie's Adventures' by Dick King-Smith, the collection containing the first three books in the series: 'Sophie's Snail', 'Sophie's Tom' and 'Sophie Hits Six'. They're about a small but determined girl who wants to be a lady farmer when she grows up. I have read these aloud to other children, though they are usually rather older than three, and I enjoy them every time. Great characterisation and plenty of humour. There's even some low-key educational information about farms. Very highly recommended.

Then I was persuaded to read 'Esio Trot' by Roald Dahl. I had enjoyed the Dahl books I read aloud in the previous period, and this is also intended for younger children. It's the story of an elderly man who lives in a flat and falls in love with the lady on the floor below him. However her passion is tortoises... the plot is ridiculous, in typical Dahl style. There are delightful line drawings by Quentin Blake every few pages, but the story involves deception and the mis-treatment of tortoises. Perhaps I’m over-thinking it, but I really didn’t like this story much, and wouldn’t recommend it.

And just in case it seems odd to be reading books of this kind to a child of three, I should add that we also read him large quantities of pictures books intended for younger children, including most of the ones shown here, among others. Dr Seuss, Shirley Hughes, Beatrix Potter, Mick Inkpen... and many more. I love children's books!



Miscellaneous

I try to read one or two other non-fiction books each month. I didn't manage to complete any writing books in this period, but I did finish a couple of other books that don't fit in any of the above categories.

The first is 'A Slip of the Keyboard' by Terry Pratchett. This is a collection of his speeches, book introductions, and other short non-fiction pieces produced over many years. Inevitably there's a lot of repetition as he didn't say new things every time he gave a speech or wrote an article. It took me ages to get into the book, and I found the final section (after his diagnosis with Alzheimer's Disease) rather depressing. But all in all, I was glad I read it, to gain a few more insights into his life.

I think picked up 'Liberated Parents, Liberated Children', by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, a book I'd bought second-hand at some point. I've read and very much appreciated some of their other books about communicating, particularly with children. This one is written in semi-fictional form, describing family situations and their resolution (or not...) after using some of the techniques the authors espouse. My sons are now adults, but some of the suggestions are appropriate when dealing with any communication breakdown, or apparent deadlock in a disagreement. I finished it in just a few days, and would recommend it very highly.




Saturday, October 14, 2017

Signs of Autumn in Cyprus

Once again, Summer in Cyprus is gradually coming to an end. To me, this is a great relief. By about mid-September the humidity had reduced to mostly bearable levels, but we were still using air conditioning during the daytime, if we had computers on, and for an hour or so after going to bed.

At the end of September daytime temperatures were still in the low thirties. Now, just a couple of weeks later, the daytime highs are in the 26-29 range. That's still very warm, and it's sunny, most of the time. But the house stays a couple of degrees cooler, and windows, cracked open or covered with mosquito netting, catch the breezes nicely. 

We went to the local plant shop and bought some petunias and other bedding plants. It was perhaps a tad early; they don't do well in heat. But most of them have survived, providing some extra colour on our balcony and front patio.



Around the end of September we stopped using air conditioning in the bedroom, although we still run the ceiling fan. I still used air conditioning some of the time with my computer, as the fan seems to be giving up and I didn't want it to overheat. But I haven't used air conditioning at all for over a week now.

We had lunch with visiting friends last Sunday, and then suggested going for a walk. They had never been to the Pharos beach, which used to be a favourite walk of ours. I was interested to know how it looked; some months ago, the walk along the top was closed to visitors, with considerable construction going on.

In the Summer, I don't go outside, if I can help it, between the hours of about 9.00am and 5.00pm. But this was barely three o'clock, and not too hot. It was quite cloudy, although I grabbed a sun hat anyway.

As we were driving, it started to rain. It was only for a few minutes; we haven't yet had any heavy rain since the Summer, but it was perhaps the third shower since the end of September. As the sun came out through the clouds, a lovely rainbow appeared:


By the time we reached the lighthouse, the rain had stopped and the skies were blue again. The walk above the beach was paved, but the beach itself still looked deserted, with wild plants looking dry and brown after the summer.


I kept in the shade as much as possible, but it was a refreshing walk despite being in the sunshine in the middle of the afternoon.

During the Summer, we sleep with just a cotton sheet over us. By the end of September we had moved to just a duvet cover. A few nights ago, we were feeling quite chilly, so I got out our thin duvet. I laid it across the cover, thinking it might be too warm, but it was very pleasant. Today, when I changed the sheets, I put the thin duvet in a cover.  It will probably only be a couple of weeks or so until we need the medium thickness duvet.

In the mornings, through the summer, I throw on the previous day's tee shirt and a pair of shorts that have seen better days. Then, after doing whatever cleaning or cooking I am doing, I shower and get dressed a little more respectably.  However, this week I have moved from old shorts to my sweatshirt trousers for the mornings.  I haven't got any sweatshirts out yet, but am quite looking forward to doing so.

This morning I made another batch of granola, and some ketchup. I cut up fruit for a fruit salad, and made a cake, as we're going out to a barbecue this evening. I cleaned the house, too, as well as making the bed and doing some laundry.  A few weeks ago I would have been quite daunted by all this. As I wrote in a previous post, just three weeks ago, when I was doing a lot in the kitchen on a Saturday, I had to keep escaping to my air conditioned study for a break. Today I finished everything in the kitchen by about one o'clock. 

I love the onset of Autumn in Cyprus; sadly it's usually quite a short season. Within another month we'll probably be starting to feel distinctly cold....


Saturday, October 07, 2017

Replacing our Freezer

Yesterday, we bought a new freezer.

But before I write about that, I will temporarily jump back in time, eleven and a quarter years. We also bought a freezer when we moved to this house in the summer of 2006. We decided, then, to have a large upright freezer. It was an unbranded one; we bought it from a showroom called Dalco that wasn't far from here. It was good value, and the freezer seemed enormous. But we soon filled it up.

Its only problem was that it frosted up regularly. I took a photo (probably for this blog...) the first time I de-frosted it, about a year after we bought it:


In a rush of nostalgia, I went through my photos looking for snaps of it, but there were very few. I suppose freezers aren't very photogenic.  The first one I found showing it in its place, at the end of our kitchen, was when we bought this useful Ikea table in 2008 and we put it next to the freezer:


This shows the context a little better, with our greatly-missed cat Sophia testing out the new table:


And there the freezer stayed, keeping lots of produce cold, needing little care other than de-frosting about once a year. I bought crates of fruit or tomatoes from the local fruit stall, lightly stewed and froze them. Healthier and a great deal less expensive than the canned equivalent.

I bought pitta bread on offer to go in the freezer, bags of frozen raspberries (since fresh ones are not available here), frozen puff pastry, and the occasional tub of ice cream. We kept a shelf for meat (mostly chicken) which we bought perhaps once every other month, and a shelf for vegetables - some ready-frozen ones such as peas or spinach, as well as my home-frozen tomatoes.  I kept one shelf for flour, beans and lentils; not that they need to be frozen, but food moths can be a problem in Cyprus, so I would always put new packs in the freezer until needed. And one shelf was dedicated to stock, made from meat bones or vegetables, and leftover portions of soups, which I make in the winter.

Here's another photo, from 2009. The table is still there, the bin evidently sat next to the freezer. The fridge is in the foreground; it has a freezer at the top as well, but I tend to use that for open bags of vegetables, and individual portions of meals left over from slow cooking.


We never used the radiator that's pictured behind the freezer. At least, we didn't ever turn it on. We used it as a shelf for random boxes, or old batteries, or whatever needed a temporary space. And the area behind the freezer gradually filled up with plastic bags to re-use, and things to recycle... and it got messier and messier.

This is how it looked by 2014:


It wasn't just cluttered, it was a horrible and rather embarrassing mess. We decided that we needed something tidier that would hold all the plastic bags and recycling, now that Cyprus has a good recycling scheme.  We eventually found a chest of drawers in the Ikea children's department, and it was ideal. We put it behind the freezer, where it fitted perfectly, and (once I had filled it) that space started to look a great deal tidier:


A couple of years later, when we acquired more bookcases, I decided to put one in the kitchen with recipe books and the potatoes and onions, right next to the freezer... which was looking a little battered and rusty by now. But still, for the most part, working well.


There was a glitch when I turned it on after a defrosting session, and nothing happened. But I hit it, and it sprang into life. Then the handle broke off... but Richard fixed that with some extra strong glue. Several of the shelf fronts had also broken off, not helped by the way it iced up so easily.  But it kept working, and was extremely useful during the past summer when the family were staying, even though it got left slightly open one night and iced up very badly. So I had to do a major de-frost shortly afterwards.

While some appliances seem to last for decades (our fridge freezer must be approaching fifteen years old) we realised that our tall freezer was nearing the end of its days. A week ago I noticed (thankfully) that it had gone silent, and the temperature gauge was showing almost zero. I hit it, and it started making a noise and grew gradually colder, but not down to its expected temperature.

We finished the last of the ice cream, and I moved the most critical things to the freezer at the top of the fridge. We talked about it, and realised that a new, more energy-efficient freezer would probably pay for itself over about three or four years, in electricity saving. Possibly even sooner.  We also decided that we didn't want to hang on until the old one stopped working entirely. We could lose a great deal of food if we didn't notice in time, and I was starting to feel quite stressed, continually glancing at the temperature, not wanting to open it in case it warmed up too much.

So on Friday morning, after checking the relevant website, we went to the local George Theodorou white goods shop. It's where we usually buy electrical goods now. They offer good value, they deliver at no extra cost, and on the rare occasions we've had to ask them to mend something, they have been efficient and not over-priced. We didn't even check any other shops, though I glanced at some of the regular junk mail that appears in our mail box, and realised that at other shops, prices were higher.

The freezer I had seen online was the one that the owner suggested. It's smaller than our other one, but there are only two of us at home most of the time. It doesn't have a temperature sensor, and the warning lights are inside the door, which seems a tad pointless, but we didn't think we'd find anything better. Most importantly, it's 'frost-free', which means that it won't ice up. No more de-frosting!

So we ordered it, and they said they would deliver later that morning.

I turned off the old freezer, then transferred the contents - it was about two-thirds full - to two biggish picnic cool-boxes and the fridge.  I just had time to clean the gunk that had accumulated underneath the freezer when the doorbell rang - our new freezer was being delivered. The men put it in place, and checked it... then took the old one away.

Then it occurred to me that it would make a lot more space, and look tidier, if we moved the freezer almost against the non-functional radiator, with the drawer unit next to it. I don't know why we never thought of that before. The bookcase now sticks out rather awkwardly, but the space is much better used:


Modern freezers can be turned on at once, and we were told to wait a couple of hours before putting anything in.  So early in the afternoon I packed everything into the new one.

Well, most things. It doesn't look that much smaller than the old one, but it only has six shelves rather than seven. They're quite deep, but the walls are so well insulated that there's rather a lot less space in each one. So I had to re-organise somewhat, and just managed, with a lot of things still in the freezer over the fridge. It's more efficient having it full, and I need to be more careful about what to freeze - I discovered, for instance, that I had more than twelve 500g tubs of cooked tomatoes, and at least six of lightly stewed peaches.


Saturday, September 23, 2017

A quiet 'day in the life'....

Since the family departed, I have taken very few photos. I've been scanning a lot of negatives from the 1960s and 1970s, both my own and some of my father's, and knitting, and proof-reading a book which my brother is writing. These don't take up my whole time, yet the days seem to move on increasingly fast. I suppose it's a sign of late middle age.

However, one photo I did take was of a Middle Eastern wedding, which took place on the beach where we were sitting with our friends, a couple of weeks ago. As we watched, hotel staff came and set up chairs and a table, guests started to arrive - the men in suits and ties, the women in dresses and high heels, which looked a bit awkward on the sand. After a while the bride and groom arrived, and the ceremony itself cannot have been more than ten minutes. People out on the beach watched with interest. Three of the children from our group went up quite close...


Today, I haven't spoken to another person (cats excluded). For an Introvert like me, that's actually a relaxing and energising way to spend a day. Richard went up to Nicosia yesterday, in preparation for providing PA for a day conference organised by some friends. So he's been out all day. Last night I decided I'd read in bed for a couple of hours, so went upstairs around eight o'clock, the cats having put themselves to bed already (we shut them into our dining room/kitchen area overnight so they don't wake us in the early hours!).

As ever, after about an hour my eyes started to droop, and I eventually turned out my light about 9.30pm and must have fallen asleep immediately. I woke shortly after 5.30am.  Normally, at this time of year, I would then go for a walk with my friend Sheila. But they're away at present, and I can rarely motivate myself to walk by myself, unless I'm doing some errands.

After feeding the cats, dealing with cat litter and reading for a while, I realised that I had forgotten to soak the dried fruit for a 'celebration cake' I was planning on baking this morning. I'm not being ultra organised for Christmas; this is an extra one which I promised some years ago to Richard, for his forthcoming special birthday. So I weighed the fruit, and put it in brandy, and put it aside.

I was also planning on making another batch of tomato ketchup today, and some more apple-and-tomato chutney. I had bought a 4kg bag of tomatoes at the local fruit stall a couple of days ago, for the grand price of a euro. They were still in good condition, but I needed to start using them.  So I chopped apples, and onions, and garlic, and tomatoes and started them both off in separate large pans.

I should perhaps also mention that in the middle I had mend my kitchen scales; they're very light, and have a tendency to stick to the bowl. I keep on forgetting, and I don't know how many times they have landed on the floor. I managed to break at least one set in the past by doing this, and our last set became unreliable, weighing incorrectly, after such a crash.  My current scales seem to be quite sturdy, and are still accurate... but today's crash made part of the insides come off and rattle around. I had to find a cross-point screwdriver and undo them to fix it - and was quite pleased with myself for succeeding.

I glanced at the time... and it was already eight o'clock. Time for breakfast, and a glance at my email and Facebook...

Then I washed up the utensils I'd been using; when I poured out the washing up water, a cockroach (shudder) ran out of the sink and behind the microwave. These are an ongoing problem in Cyprus in the summer; I've reached the stage where I no longer drop everything, scream, and leave the room. At least, not every time I see one. Instead I armed myself with Biokill and sprayed behind the microwave.  I turned around to stir the chutney, and turned back in time to see the roach running down the counter top and into a corner.

I didn't want to chase it around the kitchen spraying more potentially toxic insecticide, even if Biokill is milder than most. So I grabbed our large broom from the utility balcony, and swept the roach outside. I'm getting a lot braver.

Once the computer's on, it's easy to get distracted. There was an interesting discussion on one of the Facebook groups I'm on. I decided to start scanning some negatives... and kept going, finishing two or three films rather than just one. I answered a few questions on an online forum I participate in... and kept finding more that I could respond to.  I played moves in my Lexulous games. I checked my email. I briefly browsed the BBC news site.

In between doing those things, I kept popping to the kitchen to stir the chutney. I decided to move all the appliances on the worktops and clean behind them, but only did a couple at a time. I made our bed with clean sheets, as I do on Saturdays now, and I put on some laundry.

I usually clean the house on Saturdays too, and try to get that done before lunch-time, but my back was aching after all the chopping of vegetables, and I kept getting distracted by the computer. I followed links to interesting articles on Facebook. I went to Picasa, my photo-editing software, to check the results of the negatives I'd been scanning, and to add names to the faces.

Then I spent half an hour at Memrise - where I'm teaching myself some world geography, and Greek vocabulary - and DuoLingo, where I'm attempting to get better at modern Greek.  Not that I seem to make much progress in understanding other people speaking Greek - and almost everyone we know speaks excellent English anyway.

After lunch I dusted the whole house with my long-handled faux feather duster, including the ceiling fans, then turned them on as it was getting a bit humid. Summer is coming to an end, with the temperatures 'only' about 30C in the shade, at the most, so I was a bit surprised at the sticky feeling this afternoon.  I'm still using air conditioning in my study, as computers can't deal with anything over about 28C.

jars of apple and tomato chutney in my store cupboard
After another break at the computer (more photos, more forums, a Sudoku game) I swept the whole house, vacuumed the living room rug and dining room chairs, then mopped everywhere.  In between times, I sterilised six jars and transferred the newly-finished chutney to it.

Later, I labelled the chutney and put it away, next to the mango chutney I made at the end of August. I don't particularly enjoy making chutney, but I like eating it very much, so am always pleased to have a supply that should last us at least another six months or so.

When I'd finished the cleaning, I sat down at the computer again and caught up with some email.  And Facebook, and forums, and did a bit more photo organising...

By the time I'd had something to eat in the evening, I realised it was too late to make the cake, which might have to cook for three or four hours, so I'll do that tomorrow. I cleared up the kitchen, yet again, and put the dishwasher on. I am still, after eleven years in this house, very thankful indeed for my dishwasher.

I've been thinking for a few days that I needed to write a blog post, so although I was going to close my computer down an hour ago, I thought I'd 'just start' one. As ever, once I'd started, it was hard to stop...

The cats had a bit of a fracas this evening; Alex went out for a while, and then Jane started attacking him when he came in again. It's happened a couple of times before, usually when he's got into fights. I don't know what caused it this time, but I separated them for a while.  Happily, she soon got over it. And while I was in the middle of writing this blog post, Alex came and started nibbling my legs, a sign that he wants me to go to the kitchen with him. I did so, and as Jane came too - and was quite affectionate with him - I shut them in for the night.


Oh, and if anyone's read this far, and is wondering where our grandchildren and their parents are... they are at last on the Logos Hope.  It's less than a month since they departed from Cyprus, though it feels like considerably longer. They spent a week in Canada with other relatives, then flew to the Dominican Republic. Yes, that country on a small island in the Caribbean, shared with Haiti, where two hurricanes have hit in the past couple of weeks. We were very anxious as Hurricane Irma approached, but they were in a large building with other new recruits on the south of the island, and - when they briefly managed to get online - we learned that the only effect for them was heavy rain. The ship and the crew had to go out to sea for a couple of days.

Our family and the other new recruits (around 100 people in all) have joined the ship now, according to its site updates, and again had to go a way out to sea when the port closed as Hurricane Maria drew new. They should be back by now, so we hope to hear from them soon.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Another twenty books completed

I wrote about my first twenty books of the year early in March. The next set of twenty books was completed late in May. It was at the end of May that my son and his family arrived to stay in our guest flat for three months. During that time, I got very behind on reviewing books. I mostly kept up - with only a few days' lag - until I went away for a couple of weeks in July.  After that, I kept note of when I had finished each one, but I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my grandchildren while they were here, and by the time I had an hours or two myself in the evening, I was too exhausted to do anything constructive.

Moreover, I didn't do much reading for myself, other than ten minutes or so before going to sleep each night. So I thought I was going to be lagging seriously on my 100-books-a-year challenge on Goodreads. Then I realised that I could review the longer books I was reading to David. I didn't want to review shorter picture books - some only take five minutes to read, even though many are delightful - but he likes shorter chapter books too, the kinds with line drawings every couple of pages, so I decided to count them as part of the challenge, if I read them aloud. Which means that my third set of twenty books is rather unbalanced, with an abundance of children's books...

As with the earlier posts, links to my full reviews of each book (on my book reviews blog) are given.

Christian books
Two books read in the last period. Out of the Saltshaker and the Divine Dance
I'm surprised and quite pleased to find that I did manage to complete four Christian books in this period, as I have done previously, even if it was over nearly three months rather than two, and one of them was very short....

The first was on my Kindle, 'The Beloved Disciple' by Beth Moore. It's a lengthy study of the Apostle John, written in devotional style to be read over a couple of months. I liked parts of it, but found it a bit too informal and culturally American for my tastes.

After that, I read 'The Divine Dance' by Richard Rohr, which I had been given for my birthday.  Very readable, interesting, and also reassuring. I had moments of wondering if the author was veering a bit too far into non-orthodox belief, but my gut feeling is that he stayed just inside the line. One I'd like to read again fairly soon.

To contrast with that new, somewhat mystical book I then opted for what is now almost a Christian classic: 'Out of the Saltshaker' by Rebecca Manley Pippert. Written at the end of the 1970s, the contrasting cover style is shown rather clearly in the photo above. The contents are very good, though inevitably somewhat dated.

The fourth Christian book I read over the past three months is a very short one: 'Waking Up' by Ted Dekker, which I read on my Kindle. It's a biographical account of the author's struggles with his faith, and how he moved on to a newer appreciation of life as a believer.

Novels
I read nine novels intended for adults in my first twenty books of the year, nine in my second twenty... and just six in this third batch. I always have a novel of some kind to read before going to sleep at night, but it evidently took me rather longer than usual to read most of these. In addition, they were interspersed with some teenage novels, listed below.  They're all fairly light-weight, as I wasn't awake enough for anything too deep.

'The Christmas Promise' by Sue Moorcroft was the first one I completed in this period. It would have been ideal to read in the Christmas season, but I was given it for my birthday, and couldn't resist. Good characters, interesting plot.

'Belonging' by Alexandra Raife was next. Warm characters, a nice pace, and a hint of mystery that kept me turning the pages.

I then embarked on 'The Holiday' by Erica James. It was with some reluctance, as I hadn't much enjoyed it the first time I read it. But I'm slowly re-reading books by my favourite authors, and thought it only fair to give this another chance. I'm glad I did, as I liked it much more this time.

Wanting a change from contemporary women's fiction, I next read Agatha Christie's 'The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side', which I enjoyed very much. It features Miss Marple, and an intriguing plot set in a small village.

By the time I'd finished that, I was about to leave for my UK visit, so I picked something from my Kindle: 'The Incomplete Amorist' by E Nesbit. Set over 100 years ago, it was pleasant light reading although I didn't feel it was as good as the author's better-known children's books.

The final book I read that was intended for adults is 'Anna's Return' by Sally Quilford. A novella rather than a novel, it is set in the middle of the 20th century with references to the war, and I liked it very much.

Teenage Fiction
This category involves the books I read interspersed with the novels above, at bedtime; some are for older children (8+) rather than just teenagers, but I enjoyed them anyway.  I read three of this category in my first twenty books, three in my second twenty, four in this batch:

The first one I read in this period was 'Little Women' by Louisa M Alcott, a book I loved when I first read it, probably as a child, and which I've re-read many times over the years. Pure indulgence, and I enjoyed it very much.

I followed that, a week or two later, with 'Meet the Austins' by Madeleine L'Engle. I hadn't read this book before, as far as I recall. Not a whole lot of plot, but a pleasant light read with very well-drawn characters.

Chalet School books are one of my first choices of comfort read, so it's no surprise that I also read Elinor M Brent-Dyer's 'The Chalet School Reunion' during this busy period. Fiftieth in the original series, this is about families and friends connected with the school, rather than being a school story as such. Very enjoyable.

The fourth book in this category was on my Kindle while travelling: 'Of Wheels and Witches' by Stephen Hayes. A very interesting read, set in the apartheid years in South Africa, featuring some children having rather dangerous encounters and adventures.

Children's read-alouds
The first book in this section is one I read to some young friends, over several weeks, and finished just before my grandchildren arrived. 'The Exiles' by Hilary McCay features four girls sent to live with their grandmother for the summer, and I very much liked reading it aloud. My friends enjoyed it too, partly because three of the girls were the same ages as they were.

The first short chapter book I read to my grandson was 'Help!' by Margaret Gordon, a book, along with those below, which I found at the local thrift store. It's about two young pigs who live in a block of flats with their extended family, and who are determined to be helpful... unfortunately it doesn't always work that way. Amusing in places, each chapter complete in itself.

'TJ's Sunflower Race' by Rose Impey is a delightful story intended for early readers, but it works very well as a read-aloud. Lovely line drawings, and if the ending is predictable, it's very nicely done with a bit of humour here and there too. We read this one aloud several times...

'Lollipop Days' by Margaret Nash is about a friendship between a rather mischievous girl and a somewhat more ordinary boy who live near each other.  Not particularly exciting, but quite a nice set of stories, probably intended for about age 5-6 as later chapters involve school.

Roald Dahl's 'The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me', in a large format with colour drawings by Quentin Blake was a wonderful find. The story is (unsurprisingly) bizarre, but not unpleasant, and my grandson loved it. I don't know how many times one or other of us read this thing aloud in its entirety. There are no chapter breaks, so we just kept going...

And finally, at least for this batch of books, another by Roald Dahl. Not as enjoyable as the previous one, my grandson also very much liked 'George's Marvellous Medicine'. It involves a boy concocting a potion to replace his horrible grandmother's medicine, with unexpected results.

As for writing books and 'miscellaneous', I didn't complete any of those in this period. 3e

(I actually finished the last of this batch of books on August 8th and have read another seven books since then, including one of the ones which I mistakenly included in the photo for the final category - but I'll mention it, along with the others, when I've completed my next set of twenty books for this year. )

Thursday, August 24, 2017

So long, farewell... as the family depart from Cyprus

Today, we said our sad goodbyes to our older son and his family, who have been here, staying in our guest flat, for almost three months. They're on their way to Canada for a week, to catch up with relatives, and then to Central America.

But I should back-track nearly three weeks. I returned home after a couple of weeks away, bringing Tim with me. It was wonderful to have an extra pair of hands.. and on the first Sunday he cooked most of our lunch, meaning I was relaxed enough to take a photo of our entire family - or, at least, all our descendants - together, probably for the last time in a couple of years.


Tim loves to cook, and while he was here he made some of his classic one-bowl brownies, and some double chocolate chip cookies... he also made a batch of naan bread, assisted ably by David who loves helping in the kitchen.  There was a slight misunderstanding in that David thought they were making banana bread, but he liked it anyway.


It's said that children really don't need many toys; that they play with new things for a few days, and then the enthusiasm wears off. David does love his little trains, and figurines from Postman Pat and other favourite stories, but he also spends a lot of time playing pretend games with whatever items he finds, inspired by his tremendous imagination. Here he is with my beanbag, which he first decided was a Santa sack, then a sleigh, and - in this photo - it became reindeer pulling a sleigh:


The cushions in our living room have been used, by turn, as sacks of corn, presents to be unwrapped, sticks for a barbecue, bread for sandwiches... and probably much more besides.

More recently David's been playing at going to Canada, so the beanbag became an aeroplane seat. I was amused when he produced a backpack that he'd found, and told me it was his 'hang luggage'. When I asked what he'd put in it, he looked at me with a 'duh!' expression, and said, 'Books!'

About a week ago, he suddenly announced that he wanted to wear a jumper. We were somewhat bemused - the temperature outside has been at least 32C in the shade for the last couple of months, and it wasn't much cooler in the house. But Becky thought it a good opportunity to let him try on the Postman Pat jumper I had made him for his birthday. I was worried it would be too small by now, but happily it fit him with some room to spare:


Esther, meanwhile, has mastered the art of crawling, and pulling herself up to standing, and she's started cruising around furniture too.


Before I left, attempts were made at potty-training David. Current wisdom is that around three is the right time to start for boys, if they haven't already shown interest. Daniel explained that modern nappies are so absorbent and comfortable that there's almost no motivation for most toddlers and young children to give them up, so parents very often have to persuade their children to go through a 'training' period, with 'toilet times' and stickers and all kinds of other motivational ideas.

While I was away, after a few false starts, they embarked on a full nappy-free week. David spent a lot of time sitting on one or other of the loos, with one of his parents reading to him.  (Richard asked if the choice of book in our upstairs bathroom was deliberate.... )


After what was, I gather, rather a traumatic week for all concerned, David had mostly got the idea and was beginning to ask to go. There were some accidents, but happily they've reduced significantly in the past couple of weeks.

The problem with August is that almost everything shuts down. In June David was able to go to some drama sessions, and the local toddler group.  In July, there was less and less going on... by August, almost nothing at all. He had really outgrown the Early Learning Centre Tuesday afternoon sessions, which didn't change much from week to week, and the indoor soft play places are too noisy and busy for more than the occasional visit.

In addition it was far too hot to be outside during most of the day, making the side yard less appealing. Sometimes in late afternoon David played outside, and a few times went to the park, plus Fridays to the beach with friends... but mostly we were confined to the inside, with air conditioning. Not easy for a lively child who wants to run around.

As with so many difficult periods of life, it sometimes felt confining and almost endless at the time, but looking back, the time has flown past. Suddenly it was their last Friday evening:


We played a last Cities and Knights game, all together, sitting outside:


There was a last Tuesday morning. Most of my friend Sheila's children are away at a youth camp, but E (four years older than David) came over, and they spent the time making paper cakes and other goodies, and asking us to order things to eat and drink, which they then delivered on trays or cushions:


I continued reading to David for at least an hour every day; I collected the books I'd read aloud on one day, not long ago, and was quite surprised to find there were twelve:


While most are quite short, a couple (the Roald Dahl ones) take over half an hour each to read.

On Wednesday morning, we all went to Richard's favourite ice cream place, and David had his favourite so-called 'Facebook' ice cream one more time:


I shouldn't have gone, really. It was so hot out that I didn't feel well for about an hour after getting home again. In the afternoon we took Tim to the airport, to return to the UK.

Then this afternoon, it was the turn of the rest of the family.  They managed to get all their belongings into three large cases and one lighter one (plus hand luggage). Sheila helped with transport. Check-in was quick, so Richard and I didn't stay long at the airport.


I'm pleased that they're on their way to the ship where they've wanted to return for some time, and that the details eventually worked out. I'm delighted they're able to spend a week seeing some of Becky's family en route. I've loved getting to know the children better, seeing them develop and pass milestones, enjoying David's wonderful sense of curiosity and imagination and hunger for stories.

Tomorrow we'll get the guest flat back to its usual state (one of the beds was dismantled in David's room, and the cot needs to be put away) and work out where to store the sand pit and toys.  On Saturday I hope to catch up with my book reviews blog, on which I'm about three weeks behind. On Monday I'll resume scanning negatives, and writing, and website updating.

Meanwhile, the house feels very quiet. I haven't done anything constructive since returning from the airport six or seven hours ago. I've shed a few tears, tidied away a few things, vegged out at the computer. I'm going to miss them all very much.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Returning to Cyprus today

The last week has, once again, flown past. Today, accompanied by Tim who is coming for a holiday, I will be returning to Cyprus. I'm looking forward to seeing the family again and spending a few more weeks with my grandchildren, having all my descendants under one roof! But I'm really NOT looking forward to the heat, humidity and sheer exhaustion that overtakes me during the summer months. Apparently last month was the hottest July for the past thirty years in Cyprus. I am, rather selfishly, very relieved to have missed the last ten days of it.

However, I can't move on, blogwise, without mentioning a delightful restaurant where I was taken on my last Saturday in Alcester. It wasn't particularly close to the house, and in the opposite direction from a large computer shop we had been visiting in the morning, looking at laptops.  Indeed, if we had not known it was there, we would probably never have driven up the small road where it was located, nor necessarily even have spotted the rather modest-looking sign on the outside, letting us know that it was The Broom Tavern:


There was a small car park, but it wasn't immediately obvious where we were supposed to go. The house looked old; apparently it was originally a farmhouse in the 16th century.


Inside the decor is attractive, with a very pleasant atmosphere.


The menu isn't huge, but with a wide variety of options including some for vegetarians; they seem to be quite flexible, too. I'm not vegetarian, though I lean strongly in that direction; I learned a few months ago that I am a 'flexitarian' - one who mostly eats plant-based foods, but also a bit of poultry or fish when offered it by other people. Since I'm married to a confirmed meat-eater, and Cyprus culture really isn't  good at understanding vegetarianism (let alone veganism) I've opted for this, at least for now.

Anyway... one of the menu options was vegetarian chili with various side dishes, so that's what I opted for.  This photo, unfortunately, doesn't really show how stunning the presentation was when it arrived laid out on a wooden platter.  One of the black metal dishes contained rice, the other an excellent veggie chili. There were tortilla chips (clearly made from tortillas rather than bought in), guacamole, sour cream, tomato salsa, grated cheese, and salad.


I didn't think I would manage more than half of it, but in the event, other than about half the rice, I ate it all. It was delicious.

My father, who is not vegetarian but highly intolerant of garlic, and whose appetite fluctuates somewhat, asked for a baked potato with baked beans and grated cheese.  That was also beautifully presented but the photo doesn't show it at its best:


After such a large first course I wouldn't have opted for dessert at all, but my father very much likes desserts, and chose a fruity sorbet one - pineapple and melon were certainly involved, and he said it was delicious:


Lorraine chose a strawberry panacotta dessert; I might have gone for that, but the dish description mentioned balsamic vinegar, and that sounded rather odd.  It was also beautifully presented, and she said it was extremely good:


I decided, since they were having desserts, I would have the basic ice cream. Three scoops, they told me, with various choices.  I opted for two chocolate and one salted caramel.  I expected three scoops in a small dish, as one might expect in Cyprus. Instead, I was presented with this:


The odd-looking squiggles on the top of each of the desserts was a kind of crystalline spun sugar. A sort of hardened, flat candy floss, I suppose.  The chocolate ice cream was good, the salted caramel out of this world... I should perhaps have had two of that. It never occurred to me that anything could be better than chocolate.

Replete from this amazing meal, we took a short walk in the afternoon...


...which included some blackberrying.  July seems rather early to me for blackberries, but there were lots on the local bushes, with plenty more to come.  Hard to see in the small version of this photo, but anyone interested in knowing what blackberries look like, just click the image and a larger one should appear.

ripening blackberries on a bush, in Alcester, UK

Sunday was a relaxed day. We went to a church service at St Nicholas' Church, then home for a roast lunch followed by apple and blackberry crumble. In the afternoon we played our fourth game of Settlers of Catan in which I really hoped I wouldn't win. In the first game, earlier in the week, I won rather too resoundingly. The second was much closer, and I only won because I picked up a victory point. I don't remember the details of the third, but I won again. I had tried a different starting strategy in each.

For the fourth game, I didn't have particularly good starting places, and decided to play the 'harbour' strategy. It worked all too well, but when I was approaching twelve points we decided I'd keep playing, opting out, so to speak, of the possibility of winning.  Eventually they both reached eleven points... and Lorraine eventually reached twelve and was declared victor:


We then counted my points and I was slightly embarrassed to find that I had managed to acquire eighteen...

On Monday morning I made the train journey down to Surrey to stay a few days with Tim. It's a journey of about three-and-a-half hours by train, with three changes including a brief ride on the London Underground. I am always a bit anxious about the Underground as I haven't used it much and don't understand it... but all went well and I arrived safely at the station close to Tim's flat. What amazed me most was that the entire trip (three trains and one Underground), since I booked it in advance, cost me the grand total of £11.

In the evening, we played a game of Cities and Knights, and Tim creamed: sixteen points to my eight.

On the Tuesday we took further trains down to Sussex to spend the day with Richard's mother. It was the first day since my arrival when the sun had shone almost all the time, so we spent some time sitting outside, admiring her garden:


On the Wednesday it rained, off and on. I caught yet more trains, this time to Woking, to spend a few hours with my friend Anne, who is, as far as I can tell, my longest-standing friend. We met when I was seven and our family moved to Walton-on-Thames, as we were in the same class at school. We spent two years at Ambleside Avenue First School before moving to the larger Mayfield Middle School when we were nine.

After a year there, our family moved to Birmingham, and not long afterwards Anne's family also moved. We had agreed to stay in touch, and although our parents didn't expect us to, we wrote letters - pages and pages, sometimes - very regularly, at first, then gradually easing off to just Christmas and birthday greetings. Anne came to our wedding ten years after we parted, and at the time we said we ought to get together every ten years, but that hasn't happened. So it's over 37 years since we had actually met!

We talked endlessly, catching each other up on the past few decades' worth of news about family and friends. Then Anne drove me back to Tim's making a considerable detour through Walton-on-Thames where we went past the sites our our old schools (Ambleside Avenue is now a primary school, with rather different buildings; Mayfield no longer exists at all).

I had only the vaguest memories; my family only lived in Walton for three years, but I did vaguely remember the road where we used to live, and that our house was just around the corner from another school friend. I knew the address, so as we briefly slowed down, was able to snap this picture out of the car window. I'm pretty sure it's the right place, though I wouldn't have been able to pick it out if I hadn't known the house number:


On Friday - yesterday - Tim showed me round the grounds of the school where he teaches, then we walked into Epsom, a nearby reasonably-sized town with a good set of high street shops. I particularly wanted to go to Lakeland, to buy some of my favourite breadmaking yeast, and one or two other things. I also went to several rather upmarket charity shops and was delighted to find yet more children's picture books that were not previously part of our collection.

In the evening, Tim treated me to Indian takeaway food, and then we had another Cities and Knights game. This time I did at least reach ten points before he won.


After that we sorted out a lot of paper recycling, printed our boarding passes, and even did most of our packing.

This morning we've cleaned and tidied everywhere, turned my bed back into a sofa, emptied all the rubbish... and were completely ready to go over two hours before we need to leave. This is a bit disturbing for both of us, so I decided to write a blog post, and Tim has popped out to buy a few essentials that he will need as soon as he returns.