Saturday, December 31, 2005

New Year's Eve

2005 has been a year of milestones, as outlined in our Christmas newsletter. A good year, on the whole. 2006 is going to be much more of a challenge: primarily because Daniel is going to be leaving home in ten days' time, to join the Doulos. He's feeling the mixed anticipation of looking forward, yet hating the thought of goodbyes and of actually leaving.

I'm feeling something of the sort too, but without looking forward to his being away. I'm thrilled that he's strong and healthy, that he wants to be more independent, that he has so many talents. I'm even more pleased that he's never given up on God, and that he's embarking on two years of missionary life and travel. And I'm thankful that he's been happy to stay at home until he's past 19, and even more that we've home educated for the past eight years.

I remember, when Dan was small, I was already aware of the rapid passing of the days. My baby had become a toddler, my toddler was fast turning into a small child. Tim, my second baby, wanted to grow up even faster. I found myself wishing children didn't change so fast, that I could somehow freeze time. Then we met a family with a child who would never grow up. He had multiple serious health and mental problems, meaning he would never walk, or eat independently, or stop wearing nappies. He couldn't talk, and had to be taken everywhere in a custom-designed wheelchair. He had to have medication injected each day, and was going to be entirely dependent on his family for the rest of his life, however long that was.

I was humbled, and saddened. I also realised that it's right and good for children to grow up, to develop new skills, and eventually to become independent. I started to give thanks for the contented passing of the days, and my children's growing skills, rather than regretting the swift passage of time.

In retrospect, nineteen years seem to have whizzed by. They've been the most fulfilling of my life, and I don't feel ready for the 'empty nest' just yet. I'm glad Tim will still be here for at least another year or two, although I'm sure he'll want to be independent before long.

This week, there's a lot to do. Dan's been working on de-cluttering his room, and the last couple of workbooks from his home education coursework. He's worked out what he wants to take with him (maximum 20kg, plus hand luggage) and done an initial packing. He has one more drum lesson, and perhaps one more clarinet lesson. He's teaching himself German. He's practising his juggling and working out how to make more clubs when he's on the ship:

He also wants to learn to cook. Tim started cooking about nine years ago and is now competent at almost any meal. Dan hasn't been interested in any cooking other than making salads and herbal teas (from dried herbs). But on the Doulos there aren't many options for vegetarians, and in the two months he was there in the summer, he got very bored of white rice and vegetables. Apparently there are extra little kitchens where people can make their own meals if they want to - on occasion - so he wants to know how to cook a few favourites.

I learned to cook by following recipes, and Tim seemed to pick it up by osmosis (and reading), as happens in home education. But Dan hasn't, and I don't really know how to teach him. But we've decided that for the next week he'll choose the menus for our evening meals, and cook them too, with me directing. Tonight we started with basic spaghetti and an onion/garlic/tomato sauce. One of Dan's favourites, and pretty simple. He also cooked frozen peas in the microwave, and stir-fried courgette slices in oil:

It turned out fine, and I'm sure he'll turn into a competent cook once he's more confident. So long as he doesn't get distracted...

Oh, and there's one more thing I've agreed to do. Something I never expected to have to do when we decided to continue with home education after our initial trial. Indeed it's a bit of a standing joke in some British home ed circles, due to something written in the book Free Range Education. One of the mothers who contributed ended her piece by saying that an added benefit of home education was that she would never again have to sew on name-tapes.

But guess what Dan needs for his time on the Doulos? Name-tapes! All the laundry is done centrally, and although small items go in a mesh bag, all the trousers and shirts and so on need to be labelled clearly. We still have plenty from his time in school in the UK, so this is going to be a big task for me this coming week.

I usually prick my finger several times when sewing, so if there are a few tears in my eyes I can always explain them away...

Friday, December 30, 2005


This evening we played Rummikub. Richard doesn't seem to have had much of a break this week (the latest entry on his blog explains why!) and it's all too easy for us all to be at computers in the evening. Dan goes away to the Doulos in 10 days so we wanted to do a few things together as a family before life changes for us all.

To 'start' in Rummikub, players have to put down runs and/or groups of tiles whose numbers add up to 30 points or more. If they don't have that much, they have to pick up another tile. Every so often there's a round where three people have started, and one keeps having to pick up more and more tiles. We theorised once what was the maximum number that someone could collect without being able to start, and it was a pretty high number. But that would rely on VERY bad luck.

However it looked as if Tim was going to keep on collecting tiles for an entire round this evening. He had too many for his rack before he could start.

Yes, we were 12 rounds into this game and Tim still couldn't start. The total he could put down from his hand came to 18 points. We had to play another three rounds before he had managed to pick up pieces he could use to get that vital 30. A black six was the vital one:

Once had had gone down, he could start to enjoy himself. Using what we had already put on the board, he could add to them, replace the jokers, and put down more sets of tiles. With careful thought and much manipulation of the tiles already placed (ensuring that they all had a minimum of three as a group or run, of course)... he managed to go out. So he just had one turn in that game, but it was a very successful one!*

Just before Tim did this mammoth effort, we realised we were running short of tiles to pick up. We pass them round in a bag... what would happen if there were none left? We couldn't find the instructions. Or rather, the only instructions we could find were in Chinese. If Tim hadn't been able to start, I don't think any of us would have been able to get rid of all our tiles and go out, as he had so many useful pieces in his hand!

So we decided we would adopt a new rule, in such a contingency. If there were no tiles left to pass around, we would open a box of chocolates and pass that around instead.

* In case any Rummikub experts look closely at the photo and think he made an error... the tiles on the right need to be read up and down. He took yellow and black 1-2-3 sequences, a red 3 that was on a longer run and a blue 1 from a set of four 1s, and got rid of his final blue 2 that way. Three 1s, three 2s, three 3s. Just not ordered horizontally.

Breadmaker, breadmaker, make me some bread...

Once upon a time we had an elderly breadmaker, which a friend gave us because she couldn't get it to work. I managed to make some quite good loaves of bread with it, and also had some terrible results. Particularly in the winter and summer where Cyprus temperatures can be extreme. To make it worse, the machine had only one setting that worked (the basic loaf - no variations) and only one possible size (about a 500g or 1lb loaf) which wasn't really big enough for the four of us, even if the bread was successful.

Time passed and we gave up trying, and the breadmaker sat on a shelf gathering dust. I did try making bread by hand a few times, but it was so messy and such a lot of effort that I didn't bother. We have a perfectly good Perseus bakery just around the corner, so it was much easier to buy bread there for lunch each day.

Nearly two years ago we bought a second-hand food processor, and found that it could make and knead dough. So for a while I baked bread again, the hard work done by the food processor. Although even then it was a bit of a hassle, as it meant I had to start before 10am and stay around all morning to deal with the rising and punching down and baking. But it was great bread...

Then the food processor started making graunchy noises whenever I made bread dough. Perhaps we were working it too hard. And life got busier, or I got lazier, and we went back to buying bread at Perseus. Not so tasty or nutritious, but still very good.

Then I found myself pondering breadmakers again. A new one, with lots of settings for different types of bread, and different sizes. Perhaps it would even be better temperature-controlled, to allow us to make bread in extreme temperature conditions. I read reviews, and noted the ones that sounded the best. We were given quite a lot of Christmas money from various relatives, and I thought about it some more. On the Thursday before Christmas we went to a party, and the hostess had baked some wonderful bread, using a Severin breadmaking machine. I was so impressed, I thought we might go and look for one for ourselves.

Christmas Eve, and I had to buy one or two last-minute ingredients which I'd forgotten. We went to Orphanides, not our usual supermarket, but a bigger one with two upstairs floors containing clothes and electrical goods. We went to have a look at breadmakers. There were only three in stock: two Morphy Richards fastbake machines, and one Severin, like the one we saw on Thursday. Similar price, similar capacity. Both machines that did well in reviews. I would quite have liked the Severin... but there were no English instructions. Only a short booklet in German. We could have waited until January for some new stock, but Richard decided we'd get one there and then. Probably wise, or we might not have got around to it for ages.

So we bought a Morphy-Richards fastbake, complete with clear instructions and a guide with lots of different recipes. I studied it carefully.

On Christmas Day after church I found a power socket (rather lacking in our house) in our bedroom, and put in ingredients for a wholemeal loaf, exactly as described. I set it off, then forgot all about it until mid-afternoon. It had evidently risen, and then sunk again. It was like a loaf with a crater. It tasted all right, but rather dense. The troubleshooting guide wasn't much help. Yes, I did measure the ingredients successfully. No, it certainly wasn't too hot in the room.

On Tuesday I tried again. This time I did it in the kitchen, and it barely rose at all. Indeed, it didn't even mix the ingredients in properly. So we ended up with a floury brick. It just about made toast, but was chewy and generally not very nice. Perhaps the kitchen was too cold... the booklet did say that under 15C results weren't necessarily very good. It wasn't sunny on Tuesday, and the kitchen could well have been colder than that. It might explain the lack of rising, but I've no idea why it mixed so badly. Again, the troubleshooting guide was no help. Yes, I DID measure accurately!

So I went to and ordered a book about making bread for breadmakers. One of the reviews I read of this machine said that the only problem with it is the recipe guide.

On Wednesday, I tried the dough setting. I used my favourite wholemeal honey recipe from my food processor bread days, did the kneading and first rise in the breadmaker, then turned it out, punched it down, rose it in a bread tin, and baked in the oven. This time a beautiful loaf emerged, just like we had previously. Very successful.

But I really wanted the breadmaker to do the whole thing, so today I tried the same recipe (ie NOT one of those in the machine booklet) on the ordinary setting. I kept an eye on it. The sun was shining so the kitchen was warmer. And it came out well. Rather taller than I expected, and the top - which rose beautifully during the rise cycle - made a little crater. But it was good bread and we were pleased with it.

Tomorrow I may try a smaller size, since it was actually too big for us. It might be a better shape - since the same baking pan is used for all sizes - as it wouldn't be so tall. Or we might eat the leftovers (currently in the freezer) from the last two loaves, and wait until the recipe book arrives.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Post-Christmas season

I'm never quite sure when the 'Christmas season' is over. Here in Cyprus there are celebrations for Epiphany as well as the New Year; schools don't finish for the Christmas break until about Dec 23rd, but then have two weeks off and return after Epiphany (Jan 6th). Which, as Epiphany is a Friday, will mean Monday 9th Jan. Of course Jan 6th is also 'Twelfth Night', the 12th day of Christmas, when traditionally all the decorations should be taken down, but we sometimes do ours before then as it seems a bit silly to keep them up until then. Not that we have many up this year: just the tree, the many cards from friends and relatives in the UK and here, a few candles, and a simple wreath on the door.

Oh, and a nice Christmas tablecloth my mother bought us, but I'll remove that when it needs washing.

We're still eating up mince pies (about 14 left), Christmas cake (about three-quarters left) and other random bits and pieces. Will the post-Christmas season be ended when the cake has all gone? We had cold turkey two evenings in a row with baked potatoes and leftover veg and salad; the rest is going in the freezer for pies, curries, tetrazinni, etc. So we could still be eating that in months to come.

On Tuesday we went to a friend's birthday party in the afternoon, and the boys went to another friend's party in the evening. Yesterday we didn't do much during the daytime, although as it was sunny and breezy, I did a couple of loads of laundry. Exciting, huh?

Then in the evening we all went to see the Narnia film. It was my mother's final evening here so we thought we'd do something special. It was only released in Cyprus (with Greek subtitles) on Dec 23rd but hasn't been as popular as in the UK or USA.

It was an excellent movie. The animals and special effects were so much better than those in the 1980s BBC drama of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The acting was better too, and the scenery, and the battle scenes so much more realistic. But then Disney has a much better budget than the BBC!

I did feel there was a bit too much of the battle shown although it was mostly fairly un-gory. I gather this was deliberate, so the film would keep the PG rating. A good thing from my perspective as I hate gore; the battle was still rather too long and violent for my tastes. They also added in some extra drama and suspense that simply wasn't there in the BBC edition: a rapid race across a huge river as its ice melted (not the gentle stream in the book) which resulted in everyone getting wet. The wolves reaching the beavers' house before those inside had left. Quarrels between Peter and Susan, who really didn't want to be in Narnia at all. Realistic - they did come across as a couple of stressed teenage siblings - but perhaps unecessary.

Edmund and Lucy were excellent. I was surprised at how very young Lucy looked, but perhaps that was correct. She was a great little actress, anyway. Much more my idea of how she should have behaved than the rather pushy Lucy in the BBC series. The white witch was brilliant too. Apparently quite nice in the early scenes; I could quite see how Edmund would have been taken in. The witch in the BBC series was dreadful: high drama and screeching, but totally unbelievable. Like someone out of a pantomime. The Disney version had her less ghastly, but all the more clearly evil as the movie continued.

The beavers were wonderful, with Cockey accents and just the right personalities. So much better than the BBC version which had people in beaver costumes. Of course it wasn't possible to do computer graphics to this degree in the 1980s. The other talking animals were very well-done too, as were the centaurs and giants and fauns. And Aslan was perfect. Just the kind of voice I imagine him to have: gentle, but firm. Loving, and strong.

I was surprised that the Christian imagery was so clear, too. I thought it would have been played down, since this movie is designed to appeal to a wide range of tastes, and those of all religions. Of course it's only clear for those with eyes to see, but I can still remember the huge joy I found when I was about nine or ten, in realising - on my second or third reading of the books - that Aslan was equivalent to Jesus. Thereafter I discovered more and more symbolism with each reading. I'm very glad nobody explained it to me, so I could find it all for myself. I hope that some seeing this movie will understand better what Good Friday and Easter were all about, but of course there will be many who just see it as a good film. And that's all right. When Jesus told parables, not everyone understood them. Only those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

I'm glad it was a good film, because the whole 'cinema experience' is not something I enjoy. I remembered afresh why I prefer DVDs, and why I hadn't been to the cinema for two years.

There's the uncomfortable seats that tip back unless you keep still. The lack of leg room, scarcely better than on an aeroplane. The awful loud pop music that's played for twenty minutes before the film starts. The sick-making smell of sweet popcorn (ugh). The constant rustling of packets and bags, and munching and lip-smacking, as people seem unable to watch a movie without scoffing food. The whispering from those who aren't watching, or didn't understand, or wanted to explain something to somebody. The children getting up to go to the loo, and climbing over everyone to get in and out. And something new: adults texting friends, children playing games on their mobiles. Why on earth would they pay to go to the cinema if they weren't going to watch at all?!

About half the time I was so captivated by the film that I didn't notice all the extraneous noise and other irritations around me. So that makes it pretty good, overall. I was glad I saw it. I just wish it had come out a few weeks earlier so we could have gone to an almost-empty cinema!! Sometimes I really wish that horrible habit of eating sugary, buttery popcorn hadn't come to European cinemas. The smell is so foul, the noise so unpleasant. My only compensation is that at least people aren't allowed to smoke in cinemas any more. Sweet popcorn is definitely less bad than cigarettes.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Christmas Day and Boxing Day

It was a pleasant Christmas. We thought it would be a hectic morning but in fact we were all up and dressed by 8am, so we opened all our presents then. It was good having my mother staying - it's the first time we've had a house-guest over Christmas, although we always get together with friends for lunch. Dan had to be at church by 8.30 for music practice, then our service was at 9am and the Anglican service (which Tim and my mother attended) at 9.30am. Very early: usually Christmas Day services are at 10am, but this year they decided to go for regular Sunday times since Christmas was a Sunday. Of course it did give us more time afterwards to get all the food organised, so it wasn't a bad thing.

There were 12 of us sitting down to lunch on Christmas Day. After much family discussion we decided to cook the turkey on Christmas Eve so we could make roast potatoes to go with it on Christmas Day; our oven isn't very big and the turkey we'd ordered was 9kg. Richard then carved it into a large roasting pan (white meat on one side, red on the other, stuffing in the middle) and laid some of the skin over it to keep it most. Then I put foil over the whole thing and it went in the fridge overnight. It took just under an hour to reheat fully on Christmas Day, and was beautifully moist. It saves so much hassle (no getting up early to put it on, no worries about whether it would be cooked through, no waiting around while it was carved) that we'll probably repeat this next year even if by then we have a double oven.

Our menu (if anyone's remotely interested in traditional British Christmas lunch) was the turkey with two types of home-made stuffing, sausages, roast potatoes, brussels sprouts, steamed cauliflower, stir-fried cabbage-with-cumin, and home-made cranberry sauce. Oh, and a nut roast for my vegetarian son. In addition one of the families eating with us brought a sweet potato casserole and a brussels sprout dish with lemon. Of course there was lots over at the end. For dessert we had Christmas pudding with brandy sauce, mince pies, and a loquat fool I made with some puree frozen in the spring. The other visiting family brought an apple crumble. And there were a few clementine oranges too. Unfortunately there don't seem to be any satsumas in the shops at present. We much prefer those as they're seedless.

In the afternoon various people did music jamming together, some of the younger boys (12-15) played with some new toys and our ancient Scalextric, some of us did a complicated two-sided puzzle, some just chatted. Later on we played a difficult word game that was too much for my rather tired brain, so I opted out.

In the evening, out came some leftovers, some veggie sausage rolls I made the day before, the Christmas cake I made in November, and various salads and nibbles that our guests had brought with us. Oh, and some fudge Tim made. Not that any of us were really very hungry... I even managed to take a picture of the table before we ate in the evening:

On Boxing Day the boys arranged for three of their friends to come over in the afternoon, one of them bringing his laptop. They borrowed one of Richard's office computers too, and managed to network together five computers in all, to play a game against each other. I gather it was something like the American game 'Capture the flag', which is a bit like a British 'wide game'. All in the comfort of the dining room.

Then in the evening, Tim asked me to put my computer to sleep so he could do some important surgery on it. A little worrying when he got out the vacuum cleaner prior to operating...

... and even worse when he said, with clear enjoyment, how much he LIKES gutting computers. Gutting? I thought it was just having a few improvements...

But by that stage he told me it was (effectively) open heart surgery.

For anyone who cares (and has read this far) what he actually did was to remove the second hard drive and the graphics card and the processor from their desktop computer, and swap them for the smaller processor and graphics card from my computer.

Why such altruism to give me a fast machine with a 40 gig hard drive when I was just fine with a slower one and a 9 gig drive? Well there were two reasons. One: both boys now have MAC laptops, which they bought in the Autumn, so they barely use their desktop computer. It has a Linux drive anyway which is still there. They both felt that my computer should be upgraded since it's the most-used desktop machine in the house. However they knew I think along the lines of, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

But, not knowing this, I said idly one day recently that I wondered if the game Sims2 would fit on my computer. Richard had no idea what to buy me for Christmas, and I always enjoyed the original Sims game though I haven't played it for at least two years. Richard discussed it with the boys, and they came up with this plan to upgrade my computer and downgrade theirs, for the sole purpose (from my point of view) of being able to instal and run Sims2. And I was given it for Christmas. Something totally 'silly', unpractical, unwearable, un-useful... but potentially very enjoyable for us all. And I'm determined not to get hooked on it!

Monday, December 19, 2005

Pre-Christmas schedule

I quite like it when Christmas is a Sunday. It feels tidy, somehow. A week beforehand, there's no weekend to get in the way. Not that shops close on Sundays in December any more - Cyprus becomes more European each year - but we try to make Sundays a bit different in general, and don't rush around doing things.

The first Christmas event was on Friday, with the inter-church carol concert. This is the third year for Tim as pianist in this concert, and this year he organised most of the music too. Thankfully someone else did the final directing and the conducting on the night, and it all went well, but it's been a stressful few weeks. Dan played clarinet although as he was right behind Tim he can't be seen in this picture:

On Saturday there was an extra Christmas performance of 'The Little Man's Best Friend' by Theatre Antidote although it was really last year's show. Dan plays clarinet in this, so we took my mother along to see it. It was a busy day for Dan because an hour earlier he did a ten-minute 'slot' at the church children's party: juggling, with a Christmas message. According to everyone who saw him it went very well, although he wasn't quite sure what he was going to do until he got there!

In the evening Tim was playing the piano for an outreach Christmas service at a club in Oroklini, one of the villages not far from Larnaka; Richard and Dan went to a birthday party for one of the Antidote people. It was quite late, and isn't really my kind of thing, so I stayed here.

On Sunday our church had a family carol service. We used this year's Scripture Union service, which had plenty of participation from adults as well as from the children. I was supervising some small 'angels' from my under-7s Sunday School class. I had also downloaded and copied angel templates for everyone to tear out, and they were hung on strings around the church. None of us were quite sure how that would work, and it was rather chaotic - but quite effective.

There was a humorous story about a little angel too, with congregational participation, a song by the children, and plenty of carols and readings. Almost reminiscent of family services back home at Christchurch, Selly Park. I very much enjoyed it, and others seemed to as well. Afterwards there were a huge number of refreshments available, many of them left over from the children's party the day before.

Tim was playing the organ for the morning service at St Helena's. That was an ordinary service but in the evening they had their service of lessons and carols (only seven lessons rather than the traditional nine). Tim sang in the choir for that - a small and fairly informal choir - and read one of the lessons, so I went along with my mother. There were refreshments after that too, mostly mulled wine and mince pies.

Meanwhile Dan was in Nicosia all day, as there was another performance of 'The Little Man..' there in the afternoon.

Then this morning both boys went carol-singing around rest-homes in Larnaka. Actually they weren't singing: Tim was playing his keyboard, and Dan his clarinet. The singers were some of the choir from Friday, and a few others. This afternoon Dan's in Nicosia for his last clarinet lesson before leaving in January for the Doulos, and Tim hopes to do some Christmas shopping before his last singing lesson of the year.

Tomorrow we'll try to buy the last two small presents for the boys first thing, then there's not much more happening (other than stage combat and drama for Dan all afternoon and evening) until they attend a party in the evening. On Wednesday Richard's colleagues and their families are coming to lunch, on Thursday Dan's in Nicosia yet again, and there's a gathering for the Antidote folk and families in the evening.

On Christmas Eve the boys will be playing for carol-singing at hotels, and the rest of us spending the evening with friends. On Christmas Day itself, after church, we're having two families from Limassol over to lunch...

Oddly enough I feel pretty well-prepared at this stage. Rather worrying, really as I'm usually rushing around in a panic a week before Christmas. I do need to ice the cake at some point, and make some more mince pies, and perhaps some fudge and other sweets. But the cards are posted, the tree is up (we did that yesterday afternoon) with the family presents around it, and the freezer's pretty well stocked with soups and other kinds of cake and various other bits and pieces we might need.

Getting colder

After a remarkably mild and dry November and first half of December, the weather changed last Thursday. A pity in a way as my mother arrived for a couple of weeks on Thursday, but there's no question that Cyprus needs some rain if we're not to have another drought.

With cloud cover it wasn't particularly cold, but on Saturday we did use our air conditioning switched to 'heat' for a few hours, and then on Sunday we used our central kerosene heater for the first time this season. It's nothing like as good UK-style central heating with radiators in all the rooms, but it does take the chill off the house a little. So long as we remember to keep doors shut!

The cats love it...

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Christmas family newsletter 2005

December 2005

Dear Family and Friends,

2005 has been quite a year of milestones for the whole family....

... the rest of this newsletter can now be found on our family site, at the Christmas newsletter 2005 page.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Encounter in the Post Office

Note to self: allow a WHOLE DAY next year for writing Christmas cards, printing and folding newsletters, and getting them posted.

Why do I always think these jobs are going to be quick?!

In the past few years, Daniel's designed Christmas cards for us but this year he was too busy, and out of inspiration, so we decided to send ordinary ones. We always do a family newsletter but I had some ideas, and plenty of digital photos to use. Our colour printer was almost out of ink, but we have a refilling place not far away so on Monday I took the cartridges in, and they were ready Tuesday morning. By then I'd written the newsletter (which I'll post on this blog soon) and got plenty of cards. I got out last year's list, and reckoned we'd need to print about 75 newsletters, and write about 90 cards (local friends don't need newsletters, after all, and there are some people who just get our newsletter).

Then on Tuesday Tim and I spent ages trying to get the printer to work correctly. The images - which should have been excellent quality with our new camera - were blurred, or grainy, or even stripy. Was the cartridge not filled properly, I wondered? Yet the text was fine, and when we did a cartridge align and clean-up in Windows, they showed perfect test pages. We tried different software, we re-sized the photos, and eventually they were acceptable though nowhere near as good as previous years.

That took much of Tuesday. On Wednesday I printed the newsletters, ten at a time, and set to work to write cards, fold newsletters and address envelopes. Since I had other things to do as well, it was after midnight by the time I'd finished.

And so to the Post Office early Thursday morning. I got there by 9am and there was only one person in front of me. The postmistress was a bit surprised when I asked for 70 stamps to the UK (and two to the USA) and I was pleased to see there was plenty of space at the table for me to do my sticking of stamps! Thankfully there was one of those little roller gadgets with water so I didn't have to lick over 210 stamps (two 15c and a 1c per letter).

As I got started, so the Post Office began to fill up. I had to move to make room for others. And then after about half an hour about 20 small children came in, with three or four harrassed looking adults. Presumably some nursery school or kindergarten class, come on a little field trip to see the Post Office, and to see how to post letters. Maybe they had made cards for their parents, since one of the teachers had a list of the children, and called them one at a time to post a letter. Meanwhile the others milled around - and it's not a big place. It's a sub Post Office, not the main one, and with 20 children there wasn't much room for anyone else.

Some of them were very interested in what I was doing, and asked me about it. But, alas, they were Greek children and even after eight years here I speak almost no Greek. Usually this isn't a problem as most adults have excellent English, but these children were only about four or five years old. I smiled at them, and nodded, and they nudged each other and kept on talking but of course I couldn't communicate.

For the first time, I felt really bad about not speaking Greek. Usually I get along well with children, and I'd love to have been able to talk to them about what I was doing, and who I was sending cards to, and why I needed so many stamps. Cyprus doesn't yet have a strict child protection policy like the UK (where, probably, children wouldn't be allowed to go near strangers in the Post Office, no matter how many teachers were present) but in general I don't come in contact much with Greek-speaking children.

I don't make New Year resolutions as such, but at that moment I determined that I would put a lot of effort into learning Greek next year!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The complexity of renewing passports!

Daniel's current passport was issued when he was under 16, so it was only valid for five years and expires in November 2006. Since he's planning to spend two years on the Doulos, travelling around Asia initially, he needs a new one.

Richard's current passport is a 48-page extended one which expires in 2009, but he's travelled so much in the Middle East in the past few years that it's almost full. So he too needs a new one.
No problem; the British High Commission in Nicosia can renew passports. They have a helpful website with a table of fees, general information, notes about applying for passports, and application forms that can be downloaded as .pdf files. The site says that it usually takes about a week (5 working days) to be issued with a new passport, although it might take longer at peak times. So as Christmas is fast approaching, we thought we'd allow longer. Dan travels on 9th January and Richard may be travelling in January too, so they allocated today to take the forms, old passports, fees and photos to the High Commission. Dan arranged a clarinet lesson in Nicosia for 9am and they both managed to get up and leave by 8am, to allow plenty of time.

Filling in the forms was complicated. None of us is very good with officialese, and some of the questions were a bit ambiguous. The pages of notes were helpful - sort of - and in the end we worked out what was required. At least, we hope so.

Getting passport photos was easy, albeit a little pricey: one of the photographers locally does four for £4 CY, and since he does them on a professional digital camera they could even see what they looked like and choose good ones before they were printed. We have a British friend who teaches at the British army school, who was happy to authenticate the photos and sign the declaration necessary, so that was all sorted out.

We were a little concerned that on the actual forms there was a note saying that passports can take up to four weeks to arrive. On the other hand, they said that if travel dates were indicated, they would try to ensure the passports were ready in time. Anyway, the forms are international - the standard ones for Brits living in other countries, so we thought perhaps the longer period applied to other places where communication might be more difficult. Although with the various bank holidays coming up, we did wonder...

Richard dropped them off this morning, and enquired how long they would take. Apparently they will be ready on about 28th December, so that's good. A little longer than 5 working days, but less than four weeks.

Then he asked if they could be sent to us by registered post, as the site mentions. The cost of £1.50 is a lot less than the cost of petrol to get to Nicosia, and it's much more convenient if they can be posted.

But apparently they don't do registered post - they send by courier. And the courier takes up to three weeks!! Unbelievable...

So Richard will have to go back to Nicosia some time after Dec 28th to collect them. Not really a problem. But we do wonder why nothing's ever simple in Cyprus!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Front garden

Despite eight years living in Cyprus, it still seems odd to me that late Autumn is the time to put bedding plants in the garden. In the UK, it's late Spring, since they flower through the Summer and die when the temperatures get cool, usually aruond October. But here, the Winter is milder and the Summer too hot, so now is the ideal time. We've experimented with several types over the years, and the most successful seem to be petunias, violas and busy lizzies. So I bought a few of them a couple of weeks ago when passing a plant shop, and on Thursday I weeded one of the front flower beds, then put in the plants. Not that anybody's noticed yet...

There's another bed in the front where I usually put a few bedding plants, but it's still covered in weeds (in between the geraniums, which are perennial here)

It's been a mild and very dry winter so far. November should be the wettest month of the year but I don't think we had any rain at all since the end of October. Rather worrying, although with de-salination plants in operation we shouldn't run out of water. Anyway, a plus point is that the bougainvillea is still blooming:

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Bits and Pieces

Daniel posted on his blog again today, about preparations for returning to the Doulos for two years. It's only five weeks till he leaves, and there's still a lot to do. I haven't quite come to terms with him being away for that long yet, either. Of course he's the age when many of his friends are off to university, most of them in other countries. But at least they come back for Christmas, and during the summer. We do hope to go and visit him at some point in a year or so, wherever they happen to be (probably somewhere in the Far East) but it's still a huge separation. The 'empty nest' must surely be the hardest part of parenting by far... and I'll still have Tim at home for at least a year or two.

Dan's trying to finish his NCSC coursework - he only has about six workbooks left to complete, and is working at odd hours to fit them in. It turns out that he doesn't need the level 2 qualification at all, at least for now, but having got so close it seems silly not to finish it and get the certificate. Tim had a terrible cold last week and didn't do anything much; this week he's catching up on sleep and working a lot on music, since he's organising and playing for the inter-church Christmas concert in about ten days. At one point he had hoped to have finished level 2 by Christmas as well, but I think next Summer's more likely at the current rate of progress.

Dan's also experimenting with 'real' herbal teas. He loves the ones that come in sachets, but they won't necessarily be available in the various countries he'll be visiting on the Doulos. We can send him some via airmail, but he thought he'd try making tea with a spoonful of mint. Apparently it was quite pleasant, although a bit odd as he didn't strain it. He's wondering if he could use a cafetiere to make it in future, although I said a teapot and strainer would probably work better.

Tonight Richard and Tim are out with some friends from church, seeing the film of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I didn't want to go: it was my least favourite of the books, and I'm easily scared. I couldn't even watch the serpent in the second movie, and didn't risk the third, with the dementors in it. No way would I want to watch the final part of this one. Dan decided not to go either, being (like me) not much of a movie person anyway. Tim was in two minds, but eventually went to be sociable.

Oh, and I learned something a couple of days ago. Feeling I was rather stuck-in-a-rut with my mince pie making, year after year, I thought I'd follow the advice in one of my recipe books and make some with puff pastry. Not that I made puff pastry; I had some ready-made and frozen. I rolled it out as thinly as I could and made the first batch. They looked like this:

- with some of the lids fallen off completely. They tasted OK, I suppose, but rather fatty. By the time they had cooled down fully, they were even less appealing. A day later, they were soggy and really not very nice.

So today I made a regular batch with ordinary short-crust pastry, made with 1/4 wholewheat flour to give a bit more texture. I made 36 this morning and see that there are 18 left....

Monday, December 05, 2005

Apples and Oranges....

Dan pointed out how odd it is that apples can look so different. Same basic type of fruit, roughly the same size, but a traffic-light set of colours:

Meanwhile I'm trying not to gloat over our wonderful supply of oranges, just outside the kitchen window. The lemons aren't doing so well this year; perhaps it's a bad year for lemons in general, as the ones in the shops aren't great either. Usually by December they're excellent.

However I'm very pleased with our orange tree:

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Boxed freight and books

Just for the record, this is what our 'Atrium' looked like after we (and a friend) had unloaded the 49 boxes after the freight arrived. The cats were keen to investigate: Tessie quickly managed to find the highest box so she could survey the scene thoroughly.

We didn't unpack everything. But we did get out the dining table, the four bookcases, all the books, some pots and pans and a few other items. Oh, and about nine warm jumpers (sweaters) belonging to Richard. I spent several hours cataloguing all our books on the computer, having moved around the old bookcases and rearranged the order. Our cats have always liked sitting on top of the rattan bookcases; Sophia and Jemima seemed even more pleased to find that (now we've moved them closer together) they could sit next to each other on top of bookcases.

And yes, the Atrium is now clear of boxes. What we didn't unpack is either on top of the fitted wardrobes in our bedroom, or packed away in the tiny loft space above the bathroom.

What happened to the past week?!

So, our freight came and I was pretty occupied with finding space for books, and kitchen utensils.

But it didn't take THAT long, yet I don't seem to have written anything much for over two weeks. I suppose it's another odd time of year... cooler, but not cold. Dark evenings, but warm sunny daytimes. Only three weeks until Christmas, but despite the climate here being similar to that of Bethelehem, it doesn't feel like Advent. Even though we have Advent candles at our church, and poinsettias decorating the window sills.

Tim's had a really bad cold for the past week, and although the rest of us seem to have avoided it - so far, anyway - I've felt tired and a bit headachey for the past couple of days, and Dan's had a 24-hour gastroenteritis type of bug. At least, we hope it's a 24-hour one. The worst of it took place this morning. Even boiled water wasn't staying down at first, but I remembered a doctor's tip to give fizzy drinks, and dug out a bottle of Sprite left over from some party. It contains valuable electrolytes, apparently, and sure enough he found that was acceptable. Funny how something basically rather unhealthy can have good results during sickness.

Organised people are 'ready for Christmas' by about the end of November. One day perhaps I'll join their ranks, but I doubt it. We do better than we used to: most of the family's gifts were sorted while we were in the UK in October, and there are only one or two more to order. Online buying has made life a great deal easier in that respect. I made my Christmas cake a couple of weeks ago too. That always needs about six weeks to mature, ideally, and for once it should have it.

But the mincemeat and Christmas pudding ingredients are still sitting in the cupboard. Dan's thinking about a Christmas card design but hasn't yet produced one. We were thinking of taking some family photos but haven't got around to it. And our annual newsletter is no more than a few jottings in the back of a notebook, so far.

There's also a fair amount to do before Daniel joins the Doulos for two years. Such as booking his ticket to Germany on Jan 11th or 12th, where he has to go first for a conference! He also needs a new passport: his current one is a children's five-year passport due to expire at the end of next year. Apparently it can't be turned into an adult one, instead we have to buy a new full one. Shouldn't be a problem, but it means getting photos and going to Nicosia to the British Embassy. And probably hanging around for a few hours.

He probably needs one more vaccination before leaving, and we also need to sort out his medical and travel insurance, and the insuring of his laptop computer and clarinet while away. Oh, and I need to sew name-tapes onto some of his clothes... something I thought I wouldn't have to do any more once we started home educating. Just as well I kept the ones we didn't use!

Still, our church and some of our friends are generously helping with his financial support for the two years he'll be away, so that's very encouraging. And he did have most of the necessary vaccinations before going on the short-term trip in the summer.