Friday, February 16, 2024

Buying Billies

 Before I ramble about on our recent experience, I should explain that when I talk about 'Billies' I'm not referring to:

  • The lightweight pots (billycans) used for outdoor cooking, popularised in one of the versions of an Australian song, featuring a swagman who 'waited 'til his billy boiled'
  • A male goat, as, for example in the fairytale 'The three billygoats gruff'.
  • A stick or club - known as a truncheon in the UK - which, I learned when checking for meanings of the word, may also be known as a 'billy' or 'billystick'. 
  • A group of adults called Billy (or Billie), which is usually an abbreviation of the name 'William' or (possibly) 'Wilhelmina' 
Instead, I'm referring to a brand of bookcases that can be bought in the Swedish furniture chain Ikea. It's one of the few brands that we are able to pronounce. 

Our first introduction to Billy bookcases happened in the summer of 2006 just before we moved out of our rental house in Cyprus, into the one we bought. Some colleagues were leaving Cyprus around the same time, and offered to sell us some dark wood bookcases. 

At the time it was rather difficult to find bookcases locally. Sixteen years ago, there was no Ikea in Cyprus. The thrift store had some bookcases, but they were a bit flimsy. We had been able to buy two large ones second-hand from the organisation Richard was seconded to, some years earlier, and we had some rattan bookcases we had brought out from the UK. 

But they were starting to overflow. And we had shipped another five hundred or so books out when we sold our UK house. So the offer from our friends was timely, and since they were asking a very reasonable price, we had little hesitation in buying the two bookcases. They told us they were 'Billies' and we probably looked blank. They had been brought to Cyprus by another family who had moved from France but returned a few years earlier. Billies, we were told, were quite popular in countries where there was an Ikea. But we were not familiar with them. 

It's possible that we had the first two Billy bookcases in Cyprus. We rapidly filled them. 

Billy bookcases, old style, full of books

(As an aside: the same folk were also selling four ceiling fans. They were exactly what we needed for four places in our new house. We didn't know that they were available until we went to see the bookcases, and our friends didn't know that we were looking for something to replace the fancy chandeliers that the previous owners of the house had taken away. It felt like a divine appointment; those four ceiling fans still work well, and are a tremendous blessing in the warmer months)

We had visited an Ikea in the UK a couple of times, and hadn't found much that appealed. But we very much liked these bookcases, with their adjustable shelving, and the little metal knobs that fit into holes in the sides. They hold a lot of books, too. 

A year later, in September 2007, Ikea launched in Cyprus, just outside Nicosia. We visited a few months later, and acquired two more Billies: a tall black one for our DVD collection, and a smaller black one, which ended up taking our recipe books... for a while.  I wrote about the experience in this post. That's when we discovered that the 'new' system Billies were not only a darker colour, but ten centimetres narrower. However, that was ideal for our DVDs, and had plenty of room for more. 


Another year later, in September 2008, we visited Ikea again. This time we bought three shorter Billy bookcases for our dining room. The rattan cases were not only running out of space, they were being progressively destroyed by our cats, who thought they were convenient scratching posts. I wrote about that experience in this post

Nearly three years later, we were contemplating adding to our Billy collection due to books, once again, overflowing their shelves. Perhaps they were breeding when we weren't looking. And then we had another divine appointment: friends were getting rid of three bookcases, one of which was a Billy. It wasn't a dark wood one, but that didn't worry us. We did some major re-sorting of books and DVDs, as explained in detail in this post so that the light wood Billy took our DVDs, and the resulting arrangement looked like this:


There was still plenty of space for more books and DVDs, and we also acquired two non-Billy bookcases that we used elsewhere. 

Time passed, as it usually does. 

At some point we bought another tall black Billy, so we could move the light coloured one upstairs to a bedroom, and use one of the original - wider - Billies to house our growing DVD collection. 


We had a slightly annoying gap for a while, due to lack of planning on my behalf, which remained for some years. 

Although the books were mostly under control - the rate of acquiring new ones slowed, and I even managed to give a few away to the local church book sale - our DVD collection didn't stop. It's not that we watch all that many, but we aim to see one film per week, and an episode or two from a classic sitcom or a more modern tenser or heavier television show (most recently Father Brown; we're about to embark on the 13th Doctor Who series). And Richard has a growing collection of DVDs which are thrillers or political dramas that don't interest me at all, but which he sometimes sees on his own if I'm away, or if he is up late. 

So, in 2019, we looked at the Ikea catalogue again. To our joy, they were selling a narrow (20cm wide) Billy, the same height as our bookcases, but with a lot more shelves, intended for CDs or DVDs. We did ponder buying two, but were pretty sure that just one would last us a good long time. 

And in the process of re-organising the DVDs, we decided to move the second older Billy to the kitchen to house the recipe books (and also some of my children's fiction) meaning that the three matching black ones could sit in a row, without any annoying gap.  

We were pleased with the result.


In the corner was a gap of just over 20cm, where we were pretty sure that, one day, we would need a second narrow Billy. But not just yet...

And, indeed, four years later the DVDs were still fitting in the available space. Well, mostly. I had moved all the younger children's DVDs to the bottom shelf of the nearest bookcase. We also had a drawer under the television crammed full with our Christmas DVDs and the ones we haven't yet watched, and the series we are currently watching...

Then, a few weeks ago, we received a couple of Christmas parcels from one of our sons and his family, containing, among other things, a new and rather large DVD series. So that sat on a shelf under our television for a while, and we began to think seriously about a new narrow Billy. 

The decision was cemented when a friend, moving from one flat to another, decided to get rid of her DVD collection since she mostly watches online now. She gave us the first refusal, and since she had a lot of older classics which we hadn't seen, we selected a few. And a few more... and ended up adding another 25 DVDs to our household.


But where could we put them...?  The drawer was choc-a-bloc, the shelf also crammed with DVDs. It was starting to look rather untidy and we're pretty sure we'll acquire more DVDs in future.

So I went online and searched the Ikea site. I read that Billy bookcases had been discontinued for a while, but were back, better than ever. 

But there were no 20cm ones. The narrowest was 40cm, and that was clearly meant to be a bookcase rather than a DVD case, as it didn't have extra shelves. DVD shelving seems to have gone out of fashion, possibly because more and more people are using streaming services rather than physical DVDs. 

Then, due to an inner prompting - you can call it intuition, or the voice of God - I looked on Facebook marketplace. It's not somewhere I normally look, but I thought someone might have some kind of DVD storage that they were getting rid of.

I found someone just outside Nicosia who was selling TWO 20cm black Billy CD/DVD cases. They weren't advertised as Billy, but I was certain they were. Richard made contact, and a couple of days later we took his van and drove to collect them. I wasn't at all sure that we needed two, but since they might be the last two available narrow Billies in Cyprus, we bought them both. One of them is fitted where we planned, the other behind the TV where it's housing Richard's thrillers and other series that I have no wish to see. 



We moved the rest of the TV series DVD sets and the Christmas ones to the side cases, and there's now, once again, plenty of room for more.  


That corner looks much better without the gap:


As well as the two narrow Billies, the folk in Nicosia were also selling 18 children's DVDs, very inexpensively, some of them modern classics that we didn't have... 


...so we acquired another fourteen. So I'm now a tad concerned that we have almost filled up the shelf of children's DVDs. 

But that's a problem for another day.

Thursday, February 08, 2024

A Working Boiler and other incidents

 I mentioned in my last post that the weather, at last, was beginning to cool down in mid-January. Our central heating boiler, which had been unreliable for many years, had another service just before Christmas. That is to say, Richard did the standard cleaning and checking valves, but nothing happened. So he called out the engineer - a local and friendly person. He arrived, checked everything, and then gave part of it a big thump. That worked, and the heating came on. 

But it wasn't all that cold, so we weren't surprised when it didn't come on the following day. On Christmas Day itself, we used our air conditioners set to heat. A few days later when it was quite chilly, Richard went to the boiler room and hit the system in the place where the engineer had shown him. He had to try two or three times, but it did the trick: the heating came on. For an hour or two...

old central heating boiler

A couple of days later, the same scenario was repeated. And Richard said he was a bit worried that he might break something. In previous years we sometimes had to run down and press a button to turn the heating on, but this was more serious. Perhaps, we thought, it was time for a new boiler. 

The heating engineer told us that a new one would be much more efficient - potentially saving us a fair amount in gas bills - and that our old one was so archaic, he didn't think it could be repaired. He came to the house and measured all our radiators (we have at least twenty, including those in our guest flat and some that we don't use), so he could calculate how much power was necessary. And then, after doing some research, he gave us a quote which seemed quite reasonable. 

And while it was a bit of a hassle for him, with just one assistant, to remove the old boiler - it was very heavy! - the installation of the new one was fairly quick, and everything was finished within one (long) day. 

new central heating boiler

There's a lot more space in the boiler room now. This new boiler looks remarkably like the one we had in our house in the UK over twenty-five years ago. And while it still hasn't been VERY cold, we've had chillier mornings and rain:

Larnaka predicted temperatures, January 2024
And the boiler has worked! We have a thermostatic system in the house so the heating only comes on for a couple of hours in the morning, and a couple in the evening (when it's cold enough) and it's done exactly what it should. It's much quieter than the old system, too. Rather surprisingly, when the heating is on it also heats our water, although we didn't expect it to have done that. Most of our water heating is solar, and we have an electric boost that we had been using when the sun wasn't out. There's a gas boost too, but we've hardly needed that, since the days when the sun doesn't come out are usually (though not always) the days when it's chilly enough for the heating to come on.

And if the steamer, the washing machine and the boiler weren't enough, the day after we had decided to replace the boiler, my stick blender stopped working when I was making some ketchup.  We had an excellent one which had worked well for about thirteen years. I was able to use my regular blender for the ketchup, but it was a bit of a nuisance having to decant everything into the large goblet, and then try to get it all out. Three weeks later and there's still a tomato stain on the cutting blades. 

But my main use of the stick blender is for soup, which I make every other week during the cooler months: usually from November until about March or April. Putting that in an ordinary blender means it has to be cooled quite significantly, then usually only half of it will fit even in the bigger goblet... so we decided to buy a new stick blender.  Unlike a decade or so ago, there were several options at a local DIY shop, so we chose a Bosch brand. 

Then I reorganised some cupboards to make space for the extra bits, and put the steamer away (but with easier access than before), so the new stick blender could sit on the work surface. And we bought a plug extension thing so I don't need to keep pulling plugs in and out for these appliances:

Appliances in a row on kitchen counter top

The cats, meanwhile, have very much appreciated the house being less chilly than it was before we had the new boiler. Lady Jane loves the radiators: 


And to my astonishment, our bird of paradise plant, which bloomed in October for the first time in eight years, has another bloom that opened out about a week ago:

bird of paradise blooming in Cyprus

Even more surprisingly, there is another one which is evidently going to open within the next week or two:

bird of paradise, soon to bloom in Cyprus

I hope this doesn't mean that it will be 24 years before it blooms again...

And finally, showing the mixed nature of Cyprus weather, where it's sometimes very sunny as well as quite chilly, we usually go for a short walk along the sea-front on Friday mornings, to check our PO Box. One one of those Fridays, we were feeling quite chilled with the wind (despite the sun) so stopped at Cafe Nero for some excellent hot chocolate, made with coconut milk. 

hot chocolate at Cafe Nero


Saturday, January 13, 2024

Another week over...

 Wasn't New Year just a few days ago...? How can it be nearly half-way through January already? Time has a way of racing past, faster and faster and I really don't know where the last week has gone.

Part of that, I acknowledge, is that I've had quite a bad cold. Which I'll come to later... 

On Friday January 5th, we went for a walk along the sea-front to check our PO Box. And there, as so often happens at this time of year, we found ELEVEN Christmas cards. All from the UK, posted on different dates between the 5th and 17th December. 


So much for official 'last posting dates'. It all seems quite random. 

That nearly doubled the number of cards we received for the 2023 Christmas season, so I put them up along with those we had already received:
 
display of Christmas cards

We do appreciate the cards that arrive. If you happen to be reading this and are one of the people who still sends us a card each year, then thank you very much. But we have been rather shocked at the amount of postage necessary to send a card to Cyprus from the UK. So please don't feel that you must! Electronic greetings are also welcome. It's rather sad that, even if folk post cards early in December, they can take a month to arrive. This is why I always keep the latest cards in an envelope along with our tree and decorations, and put them up the following year. 

So these, which we displayed right through December, are actually the cards we were sent for Christmas 2022 (many of which didn't arrive until early or even mid-January 2023)


The traditional times for taking down Christmas decorations range from January 5th (Twelfth Night) through to Candlemas (February 2nd). But having had ours up since December 1st, I felt that it was time to take them down on January 5th... so we made sure the knitted wise men arrived at the manger even though it was a day earlier than Epiphany:

nativity set at Epiphany

In the evening, Richard helped me take everything down, and packed it away much more neatly and efficiently than I can manage when I'm doing the un-decorating alone.

And so, that was Christmas. 

Winding back a few hours, on that same Friday, which felt like a very long day, one way and another, I went to hang out the laundry I had done in the morning, only to find it still rather wet. I put it on to spin again, and nothing happened. Well, the washing machine made a lot of noise, but the drum did not turn at all. 

Uh-oh.

The washing machine, which was eight and a half years old, had been playing up for many months: I could no longer select the programme I used the most, and had to use a different one. Sometimes it was hard even to find that. We wondered about seeing if it could be fixed, but thought it (a) unlikely and (b) probably expensive. 

With a second major thing not working, we realised the time had come to buy a new washing machine.  Our previous one lasted nine years, and ended dramatically by boil-washing some clothes that never really recovered. Eight-and-a-half isn't significantly less. And whereas we were happy to buy a used (and probably elderly) steamer at the thrift store, just a day earlier, we didn't even look for a second-hand washing machine.  A steamer might be used ten or twelve times in a year, and we can manage quite well without it if we have to. A washing machine is used at least 150 times a year, with just the two of us, and I would find it extremely difficult to cope without it. 

So we went out to our favourite local white goods store, George Theodorou, after perusing their website, and ordered a new machine. To be delivered on Monday. And while many things have become more expensive in the past decade, I was slightly surprised to realise that our new washing machine was forty euros cheaper than the one we bought in 2015. And it comes with a five-year guarantee.

Our washing machine is located on an outside utility balcony, inside a biggish metal cupboard.  It works well; it's right by the washing lines, and it's not taking up space in the kitchen. 

But also in the cupboard, next to the machine, we tend to accumulate things like old cardboard boxes, ends of cans of paint - particularly when they're still in use - and unused cat litter trays. I also had a large bag of polystyrene beads for beanbags. At one point we had four beanbags, but one of them was damaged by one of the cats, and we didn't really think we needed four.. so I rescued the filling, and thought it would be useful for topping up the three remaining beanbags. The fillings tend to get squashed, so the bags become less comfortable with time.

It was, I think, a good idea. But I did that probably five or six years ago, and had not done any topping up. I also hadn't realised that the large bin bag in which I put the spare beads was a biodegradable one. And it started to biodegrade. I had noticed a few beans leaking out but hadn't done anything about it... and the slight leak, just a week or two earlier, had turned into a major cascade...


I might have left this for weeks, even months longer, although a high wind could have caused beans to go flying all over the place. But knowing that a new washing machine was coming on Monday was an excellent motivator. So on Sunday I set to work with a jug and a new bin liner... 

Richard helped, and between us we managed to tidy up the inside of the cupboard effectively, getting rid of some almost empty (and dried up) paint containers, and throwing out some of the beans which had become very grubby. 


On Monday the new washing machine was delivered and installed, and the old one taken away. I hadn't realised that the door was so dark, I couldn't see the laundry going around inside. But I guess it doesn't matter. 

new washing machine in Cyprus

The programme names seem a bit random; I've tried three different ones so far, and they all work well. The cycles are rather quicker than those on the previous machine, which is a plus point. 

On Thursday, when I went out for a walk with Sheila first thing, the flamingoes were right on the shore. It had rained a bit, and evidently there were plenty of fresh little pink shrimp by the shore. 

flamingoes by the Larnaka Salt Lake

We can't get too close, or they become frightened, and my phone zoom isn't great - but I was quite pleased with this picture. 

2023 broke all the records for warmth, at least in Cyprus, and December was no exception. As I said in a previous post, I don't think the overnight temperatures dropped below ten degrees (Celcius, of course) and the daytimes were mostly 20-23 in the shade. 

Early January remained warm, too. But on Friday, for the first time, my phone showed slightly cooler temperatures when I got up:


And, indeed, it rained - not much on Friday afternoon, but today has been very grey, with rain more than once. A report in the Cyprus Mail said that snow is falling in Troodos

Perhaps winter is, at last, arriving. 

Oh, and my cold...

I had a slight sniffle on Monday that barely affected me. I walked with Sheila as usual first thing on Tuesday, but felt exhausted when I got home and very 'coldy' for the rest of the day. It was  really quite bad on Wednesday, then started to improve. It's pretty much gone by now. I didn't test for Covid; mainly because most of our remaining free testing kits have dried up entirely. But I checked several sites to see if there were any clear differences. I was sneezing a lot (common with colds, very uncommon with Covid). However I didn't have a headache, other than slight pressure around my sinuses on Wednesday (headaches are very common with Covid), nor did I have any aches and pains anywhere else. I was a bit tired, but not in a debilitating way. And my coughs were productive.

All of which is probably far more information than anyone reading this cares to read, so I'll end here. 

Friday, January 05, 2024

Steaming in the Kitchen...

 Many, many moons ago, when we lived at our old, rental house, my parents had been staying, and wanted to buy us a new appliance for the kitchen. I had been reading about healthier cooking, and had seen several recommendations for electric steamers. 

I thought it would be particularly useful for Christmas puddings, but also for the kind of vegetables which (at that period) we would typically boil: broccoli, green beans, cauliflower etc. We hadn't, at that stage, discovered that roasting works so well for anything other than potatoes, carrots and parsnips. 

There were several possible steamers available in the shop we went to, rather to my surprise, and after some discussion we opted for the Morphy Richards 'health steam', which came with English instructions, a recipe book (also in English) and a two-year guarantee. Plus it was a name we trusted. And the steamer had a fair bit of use over the first couple of years, particularly when we ran out of gas for our oven, as happened sporadically. 

The recipe book wasn't in fact all that helpful; it was produced in conjunction with a slimming agency, and had rather complex low fat ideas, none of which were really appropriate for our family of four. But we cooked vegetables, and - once I had realised that steaming takes a bit longer than boiling - they came out well, and hopefully more nutritious than if we had boiled them and then poured away the water. 

steaming vegetables

It was also invaluable for cooking my Christmas puddings each year. Previously I had steamed them in large saucepans, with water half-way up the sides, feeling stressed in case the water dried up.  With the steamer, the timer has a maximum of one hour at a time. So I fill it up with water and put it on for an hour. I usually remember to top up the water and turn it on for another hour before it's finished, but if I get distracted and forget, the steamer goes off before the water can run out. 

I had a slight glitch when I realised that the bowls I had previously used wouldn't fit in the steamer. So we acquired slightly smaller ones, and as my recipe makes three, this three-tier steamer was perfect, year after year. This photo has appeared in a previous blog (as has the one above) but it illustrates nicely how very useful the steamer has been:

steaming Christmas puddings

When we moved to this house, back in the summer of 2006, I kept the lesser-used appliances, including the steamer, in a cupboard. Which is all very well, and makes the kitchen work surfaces look tidy. But when something is packed away, in my experience, it's likely to stay away. 

I would occasionally get the steamer out to cook rice, but then realised it's simpler in either the oven or a regular saucepan - and it's not as if we eat rice more than once or twice a month at most. Occasionally I thought of the steamer for vegetables, but we discovered the delights of roasted veg - yes, even frozen green beans can be roasted. For those that don't work well roasted (eg peas and sweetcorn), the microwave is ideal. 

But the steamer would come out early every December to steam my newly-made Christmas puddings. It would come out again on Christmas Day, to re-steam the pudding we were going to eat, and also the brussels sprouts. I expect sprouts might also be nicer roasted, but the oven is so full on Christmas Day that there's no room for anything else. 

Then... about a month ago, when the 2023 puddings were steaming, I noticed that the one on the top looked rather lopsided. I didn't investigate until the steamer had run for about six hours and then cooled down. I thought perhaps one of the bases had slipped. What I discovered was that it had rather badly cracked and broken:

cracked base of steamer

Richard pondered whether he could create a new base. But it would be a very complex thing to make, with the bits that stick out to hold it in place. And after more than nineteen years, the steamer didn't owe us anything. We researched a bit online then went to two or three possible shops to see if we could find a suitable replacement. But the new ones (including a modern Morphy Richards equivalent) didn't look as sturdy, and cost €65 - €70. That was more than I was willing to pay for something that really only gets used a couple of times a year.

Since the other two bases were fine, I cooked the sprouts and reheated a pudding in the steamer without any problem on Christmas Day. A day or two later, after cleaning and drying it, I packed the steamer away. And would have thought no more about it until next December, most likely...

Then, a couple of days ago, I went out to buy some yarn. And something - or Someone, perhaps? - prompted me go into the Thrift Store, which is not far from my favourite haberdashery. I checked the DVDs, as I do, but nothing looked interesting. I found a couple of mugs I liked for 50 cents each, and as I turned around I saw, on a shelf, another Morphy Richards 'healthsteam' steamer. At €8.50. 

I was on foot, and am never good at spontaneous purchases when I'm on my own anyway. But when I told Richard about it, he suggested we go back first thing Thursday, with the car. The steamer was still there, and looked in excellent condition. It was so clean and free of scale that I suspect it has only been used a handful of times. It might be almost as old as our original one, as they're no longer made in this style. But there's not much to go wrong: the base heats up and boils the water, a bit like a kettle. 

So we bought it: another, identical steamer. 

morphy richards healthsteam steamer

I washed it all thoroughly, and last night steamed some cabbage and peas, just to try it out. It worked as expected. I've decided not to put it away in a cupboard, but to find space on the crowded work surface; that way, I just might use it more often...

kitchen appliances in a row

Monday, January 01, 2024

New Year 2024

Christmas Day went well. The weather has been warmer than usual - I don't think it's got down to single digits yet, even overnight. It was about 13 degrees when I woke up, so I went out for a short walk before par-boiling the potatoes (peeled the night before) and putting the Christmas pudding in the steamer. After breakfast we opened our presents, then walked to and from the church service. There were only about twenty people there; but I'm glad we went. 

By 11.30 we were back home and the major juggling act began. I missed my younger son even more than normal at that stage; he used to take over the kitchen entirely for Christmas Day. He is skilled at knowing when to get everything going, with all the food ready at exactly the right time. I find that much more difficult. I made a detailed list to ensure I didn't forget anything, but some of the timings were still a bit off.

However, we made use of our ancient but much-appreciated hostess trolley, which we bought second-hand in the spring of 2019. This rather cumbersome contraption enables quite a lot of different food to be kept hot without overcooking. 

Richard set the table: 

Table set for Christmas Day

That was not without its own stresses, as one of our cats kept jumping up and disarranging (if that's a word) the cloth and runner. So he had to start over more than once. Eventually I shut Lady Jane in my study. 

Nine of us sat down to eat, ages ranging from 13 to 81, and I think they all had a good time. Once the food was all on the table - after a minor blip when it transpired that we'd forgotten to put out ANY of the four different dishes of vegetables! - I was able to relax. The crackers had the usual paper crowns and tiny silly gifts, some more interesting than others. It also had jokes, most of which I hadn't heard before. It's amazing how many bad Christmas-related jokes there must be. (What kind of photos do Santa's helpers take? Elfies...)

Once the main course had been finished, we cleared away the food and the dishwasher went on for the first time that day. I am so, so thankful for my dishwasher when we entertain. Nobody was really hungry any more, but the desserts came out anyway, and I think everyone found space for something. The Christmas pudding, made a few weeks earlier, turned out very well, as did the entirely dairy-free trifle which I'd made on Christmas Eve. 

Christmas Pudding


I had a feeling something was missing as I sat down, then remembered the mince pies which I had put in the oven after turning it off, to warm them up a bit. 

Then the three teenage girls went to watch some DVDs, our oldest guest went to take a nap, and the remaining five of us played a board game. As we finished our older son called for a video chat; we miss the family a lot, particularly at this time of year, but being able to see them and what they're doing makes it a little easier. Then, although nobody was hungry, other than one of the teenage girls, we got out things for a high tea, and large amounts of food were consumed by all. 

The dishwasher ran for a second time afterwards and we managed to fit all the leftovers in the fridge. Our younger son then called to chat online... our guests departed... and I went up to bed, tired but pleased that all had gone well.

I didn't plan to do any cooking for the next few days; by Thursday, however, we had finished the leftover roast potatoes (reheated) and I'd had enough of turkey for a while, so we froze what remained and I made omelettes with potato wedges, one of my favourite meals that's quick and easy to prepare. There were still plenty of cut-up cold vegetables to go with it. 

By Friday I was feeling the need for getting out of the house for more than just my early morning walks. We didn't need to do any supermarket shopping, but I did want to check the PO Box. So we drove to town, and parked at the marina. Then we walked along the sea front, collected a card and parcel that had arrived, and walked back along one of the other streets. We popped into the book shop but didn't see anything that grabbed us - and it's not as if we're lacking in books. 

I was surprised at how warm it felt - the official temperature was something like 21 degrees but in the sunshine it felt rather higher. So we stopped for smoothies.


On Saturday, when I popped out in the afternoon for some fruit and vegetables that we needed, I was startled to see the shop that used to be a supermarket (and which had many different names over the 16 years we've lived here) is being either knocked down or seriously renovated:


(That's not where I was planning on buying the produce; it's been closed for over a year)

Sunday morning was relaxing; even the cats decided not to bat or chase each other, as they have been prone to do recently. Instead, they slept next to each other in the sunshine:


In the evening we were invited to our friends' home for a New Year's Eve gathering; there were 12 of us for a meal, and one extra who arrived a bit later. We played a few games after eating, and it was all very pleasant. But I'm not a night owl. The older I become, the earlier I seem to need to sleep. By 11pm I was finding it hard to keep my eyes open, and other guests were making a move, so Richard decided to bring me home. I would have stayed until midnight if he had wanted to, but was very thankful. 

Not that there was much chance of sleep, since we knew that, at midnight, there would be a few minutes of very loud fireworks.  We heard them, but happily there didn't seem to be any more and I slept reasonably well until about 6.30am.  It wasn't nearly enough sleep (I really need eight hours every night) and I've felt a bit zombie-like today. But I got done the things I planned to do, and by writing this blog have managed to stay awake until 8.30pm... and hope to be asleep in about half an hour's time.


Sunday, December 24, 2023

Christmas Eve 2023

 I quite like Christmas being on a Monday. It means we collected our turkey and did the last bits of shopping yesterday, so today was - theoretically - a bit more relaxing. I thought of it almost like an extra Saturday. Not that I've sat down much; I've been pottering in the kitchen, making extra food, cutting up vegetables, washing up at least three times for items that won't go in the dishwasher. 

I made our Christmas cake at the start of November, put almond paste on it a few days ago, and iced it yesterday. I rarely do anything new or creative despite having many books with amazing looking ideas. Here's this year's effort, anyway:

Christmas Cake

I see, glancing through this blog, that it's very similar to the one I made in 2014

I didn't have any handy aquafaba and it seemed silly to open a can of chickpeas just for a few tablespoons of the cooking water. But I really don't like using raw egg white in royal icing. So I tried 'No Egg', something which is an inexpensive commercial egg replacer which we bought from Holland and Barrett a few weeks ago. I don't know how it works, but it was quite effective, though I had to add a tablespoon of extra water and another teaspoon of lemon juice to get the icing to bind together. 

We cooked the turkey yesterday, too. Well, Richard did most of the work. I just made the stuffing. It's now neatly sliced in a pan in the fridge, to be reheated tomorrow. 

I don't know why Christmas entertaining feels a whole order more complicated than normal evening or Sunday lunch entertaining. And I know the food and friends are not what Christmas is really about. But still, no matter how simple I try to keep it, I usually do some food preparation most days of December, with a lot on the last couple of days, and a full schedule Christmas morning. 

Advent was very short this year, only three weeks; today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. We put our tree up on December 1st, and hung up last year's cards. Fewer and fewer cards arrive each year, which is fine; electronic communication is more efficient, and considerably less expensive. Postage from the UK is shockingly high, and we know from experience that other cards will arrive next week, or later in January. So this year's cards will be hung up next year. 

This is a poignant time of year for many, a stressful time for even more. The world news is increasingly depressing. But I'll still take this brief moment to wish anyone who sees this a peaceful, blessed and encouraging day tomorrow, however you might celebrate - or even if you don't. 

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Where is Autumn....?

We have lived here long enough (26 years) that I no longer expect summer to be over by the start of September. In our first few years, I would feel a stab of disappointment on the first day of the month when it was still hot and humid. I suppose it was a bit like a child waking up on their birthday, devastated to discover that nothing had really changed overnight. 

But I was, briefly, quite hopeful at the end of August this year. We had a downpour of rain towards the end of that month. It was unexpected, and welcome... however, it didn't make the temperatures decrease. Cyprus, like most of Europe, has had the hottest summer on record. September wasn't much better. 

Still, by the middle of September, the humidity did reduce somewhat. And the night-time temperatures dropped to around 19-21 degrees overnight, even though we were still seeing more than 30 degrees in the daytime. So, towards the end of September, I started walking with my friend Sheila again, on three mornings each week. 

Larnaka Salt Lake in September

The Salt Lake had mostly dried out, but there was a little patch of water. I was told that flamingoes have been spotted already, although we haven't yet seen any on our walks. 

But now it's almost the end of October. We've managed not to use any air conditioning this month - though we were using it right up to the end of September - but we're still running ceiling fans, day and night. The early morning temperatures are still 19-21 degrees. The daytime temperatures have mostly remained up to 30-31 degrees. This morning, the Salt Lake didn't look much different; in previous years it's usually had quite a bit of water by the end of October. 

Dry Salt Lake at the end of October

We've had a bit of rain, two or three times, but no more than about five minutes at a time despite forecasts of thunderstorms and heavy rain. I've had to keep watering the plants, something I don't usually have to do at this time of year.  I haven't yet put even our lightweight duvet on the bed, and I haven't got out my jeans. I did find a thin, light-weight jacket that I wore a few times when walking in the morning, but I didn't remember it today, and didn't need it. I haven't wanted long trousers to walk in, either. 

We had a surprise yesterday, on visiting one of the DIY shops locally, to find that they already had extensive Christmas displays. Here's just one of the sections:

Christmas Decorations at the end of October

It seems a bit premature, when people are still going around in tee shirts and shorts, but perhaps they know something we don't. November is when we usually start thinking about central heating, so maybe this year we'll move straight from summer into winter...

That's not what the forecast suggests:

Larnaka upcoming weather forecast, end of October 2023

But they haven't been all that accurate, recently. And tonight we put the clocks back an hour, so it will be light earlier in the morning (which is good for early morning walkers) but it will be dark earlier in the evenings. 

I haven't updated this blog in a long time.  So here are a few other random items that may or may not be of interest: 

  • At the start of September, we had our sofit and fascia boards re-painted, repaired and/or replaced by a young friend, using a boom lift to reach the roof. I didn't even know what sofit or fascia boards were until Richard pointed out that they desperately needed maintenance. 
  • Some long-standing friends came to stay for a week, early in September. Mostly they sailed with Richard, but one afternoon we drove to a village festival where there was grape-treading, long speeches and traditional dancing. There were more people than I've seen in one place for a long time:
Cyprus village festival

  • Our bird of paradise plant bloomed a couple of weeks ago, for the first time in eight years: 
Bird of Paradise plant, blooming

  • Richard celebrated his birthday over two days: we had a barbecue for a few friends in our side yard, and the following day the two of us went to eat at the Art Cafe, somewhere we hadn't been for many years.The staff were younger than they used to be, but the place and the menu did not seem to have changed at all. 
Art Cafe, Larnaka
  • I had stopped spraying everywhere against large and unpleasant insects, as there were very few in August, none at all in September. Then a couple of days ago, I saw tiny ants swarming on the food processor. I cleaned them off, only to find more on another nearby appliance a few hours later. So I pulled everything out, cleaned away the inevitable crud that accumulates behind kitchen appliances, and sprayed the area with biokill.  Then I found more of these tiny creatures running around on the top of the microwave. Apparently they were nesting inside the vents. Google tells me this is not unusual, and the microwave still works.  Spraying the top and sides of the microwave seems to have helped. 
  • Lady Jane must have learned that classic early-reading phrase, 'The cat sat on the mat'. Every time I set the table for our evening meal, she sits down on the mats in the middle:
The cat sat on the mat

This may all sound rather frivolous, given the horrific war which, geographically, isn't all that far from Cyprus. A lot of exiles have passed through, en route elsewhere, and a few remain. This little island is braced for many more. We've had two people (both friends of friends) staying in our guest flat: one for a couple of nights, one for rather longer. 

The news sites are increasingly negative, with just a few brief lighter articles. The world seems to be a dangerous place, but, where possible, life goes on. While we pray for peace, with little hope of a solution, we can be thankful for all we have, and make the most of it while we still can. 

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Summer in Cyprus: Sweltering, Spraying, and Staying Indoors

Holiday brochures advertise Cyprus with 'sun, sea and surf' (or similar). Which is all very well for visitors, staying in hotels by the beach for a week or two. But when one lives in Cyprus, it's not quite so simple... 

June this year was - by Cyprus standards - reasonably cool. Warm enough that we didn't need to wear anything other than tee shirts and shorts. I switched from trainers to sandals, too, or flip-flops... I much prefer wearing trainers and socks but strongly dislike having over-warm sweaty feet. 

Ceiling fans running in Cyprus

By the end of May we had started using our bedroom ceiling fan at night, and some of the other ceiling fans in the daytime, as needed. But through the whole of June there was no need for air conditioning, even for the computers. With windows open, a pleasant breeze cooled the house through the day. 

Then we spent twelve days in the UK, as I wrote about in another post. It was busy, and productive, and - for me, at any rate - a wonderful break, seeing many of the people I love the most. We arrived back in Larnaka after 10pm on July 12th and while it was warm - I had removed my coat and sweater before leaving the plane - it wasn't unpleasantly so. I was particularly pleased that it didn't feel humid, since we had to spend about ten minutes standing on the steps of the plane waiting for the bus to the terminal. 

Sweltering...

Reality hit home in the morning. I didn't wake up until about 7.30am, and it was already thirty degrees outside, according to my phone's weather app. But although I was tired, I knew I had to get to the froutaria for some oranges and other fruit for our breakfast. So I went out, keeping mainly in the shade. It was probably good to get some fresh air and sunshine first thing, but I don't think I appreciated it much. 

That was the start of a heatwave that lasted two weeks, breaking all kinds of records. Most of the southern part of Europe experienced something similar. Then a couple of days that were more normal, for Cyprus in July, and then there was another high temperature warning for the next few days.

'How do you cope?' This is a question I'm asked regularly. I've never been good with hot temperatures, and I know from experience that if I'm outside in the sunshine, or if temperatures are more than about 30C at most, I really don't 'cope'. I become slow, lethargic, and often develop a migraine. 

So over the years in Cyprus I've developed a kind of summer routine. While I often try to be out of Cyprus for a few weeks, there are always some hot summer days when I'm here. I used to say that I do everything I need to do before 8am, then 'aestivate' until the evening. I don't actually go to sleep, but I don't leave the house, if at all possible. I shop locally first thing, and if we have to go to a bigger supermarket, we go in the evening rather than the daytime. 

Spraying

One of the things I like least about Cyprus summers is the increased insect population. Not mosquitoes - they are worse in the spring and autumn, and we mostly avoid those in the house by having netting over open windows. No, my 'bĂȘte noire' is, literally, a black beast whose name I still slightly shudder to mention.  (Whispering): Cockroaches.  

I had hoped that by having our house connected to the mains drainage there would be fewer - certainly we have fewer access chambers in our side yard, and the lids fit much better. But a neighbouring house was having a lot of major renovations and for the last couple of weeks of June, and most of July, we had at least one of these nasty beasties in the house every day.  Mostly deceased, I'm relieved to say. Some caught by the cats, and some stunned by the 'biokill' spray. I use that liberally around all possible entrances and as many hiding places as I can think of. 

I did this as soon as the first one appeared in June, and again just before we went away. Then I repeated the process at the end of July.  Thankfully there have been fewer since August started.  

Salads

One feature of the last few years has been eating a lot of salads; not just lettuce and tomatoes but a wide variety of different salads, inspired by both cookery books and online sites. This, for instance, is a sardine and lentil-based salad: 

sardine and lentil salad

From July 1st until at least August 31st, I don't turn on the oven. Originally I determined to do all the food preparation first thing in the morning, but that hasn't happened this year. It's mostly in the half hour or so before we eat. 

After lunch on Sundays we have, for a couple of years, eaten dark chocolate Bounty bars - not entirely dairy-free but low-enough in dairy that they're not a problem for Richard. 

We used to buy these in airports before flying back to Cyprus, then for a while they were available here. Nearly two years ago, we mentioned this to some friends who were soon to fly out, and they scoured their neighbourhood, bringing out over 40 of these bars, enough to last nearly a year. Here are just a few of them:

dark chocolate bounties, discontinued

Alas, they were discontinued nearly a year ago. We didn't realise this, but were disappointed not to find any during our UK trip in January. We did look again earlier this month, but were not surprised to find them still unavailable. 

On the Sunday after we returned, we ate the last of our stash. Possibly the last dark chocolate Bounty in Cyprus... 

our last dark chocolate bounty

Celebration

A week after our return, we celebrated our anniversary. The heatwave was intense, and I didn't even want to go out in the evening. So we ordered a Lebanese takeaway, which was delicious: 

Lebanese takeaway food via Foody, Cyprus

It was excellent value, too  Supposedly a vegetarian meze for two, it was twice as much as we could eat in one sitting, so it provided a second main meal the following day.  To make it even better value Richard had just been sent a seven euro discount voucher from Foody

Staying indoors

My aestivation might sound like a kind of lockdown, but it's not the same at all as the restrictions we were under three-and-a-half years ago. The main theoretical difference is that it's my decision, rather than being enforced by anyone else. Richard, who deals much better than I do with heat, has been out by car in the daytime many times to see people, or visit his boat, or pick something up at one of the DIY stores.

A major practical difference between my self-enforced aestivation and a lockdown is that there's no restriction on the people we see. A few weeks ago, we were invited to a young friend's 18th birthday dinner; it was the first time I'd been out in an evening since we returned from the UK, and the outside temperature was 36 degrees even at 5.30pm. I struggled to walk the short distance from the car to our friend's home, and was thankful it was not at lunchtime (as in previous years). 

However it was a very enjoyable evening, spent in our friends' air conditioned living room. 

Our friends continue to come for games mornings on Tuesdays, though during the summer we play in my study with the air conditioning on, sitting on the floor, rather than at the dining room table:

playing 'above and below' sitting on the floor

And another young friend, far more able to deal with the heat than I am, has been doing some repairs on the side of our house, where the surface spritz had been crumbling away. 

Steps

I don't want to lose the habit of daily walking. So I still aim to get out almost every morning at about 6am, if only to walk the 500 metres or so to the froutaria and back. On mornings when the temperature shows 30 degrees or more by 6am (and that's happened three or four times) that's more than enough. 

On mornings when it is only 24-25 degrees, I walk a couple of kilometres around the local neighbourhood. It's not a lot, but it gives me some fresh air and exercise, albeit limited. For the last few days our friends have been away and I've walked to their house shortly after 6am to feed their cats and (a couple of times) water their garden. Thankfully the temperature was only 26-28 by the time I was home again at around 7.30. 

During the less hot periods of the year - usually mid-September to late June - I walk an average of about 7,000 - 8,000 steps per day, or around 50,000 - 55,000 per week. When we were in London, walking all over the place, this continued. But at this time of year, I just about manage 30,000 in a week.  

I'm relieved to know, due to some recent research, that we only actually need around 2,500 steps per day (at a reasonable pace) to benefit our hearts and blood vessels, and around 4,000 to start reducing the risk of premature dying. More than that has a greater benefit, of course; but according to a Japanese study, the optimum number is around 5,000 - 7,000. That does talk about 'older people', and I'm not yet quite at the age they mention, but for me this is achievable. Much more is not. 

I'm trying to use my indoor air conditioned time productively: sorting and backing up photos, maintaining my websites, doing some filing, tidying up my folders, spending a bit longer at Duolingo. And reading a bit more than usual. August - so far - has been a tad cooler than July (which was apparently the hottest month ever recorded globally). The days are noticeably getting shorter and a month from now we might even be able to stop using the air conditioning.

As for the beach... we went there once with our grandchildren in April, It's been too hot to go there so far, this summer, and we haven't yet found a suitable evening to go with our friends. If we don't manage it this summer, I won't mind at all.