Monday, September 13, 2021

Travelling to the UK from Cyprus (continued)

I wrote in my last blog post about our complicated preparations for travelling to the UK this summer, with about ten days to do considerably more than is normally needed. Not that the pre-pandemic 'normal' applies any more. But as I said at the end of that post, it wasn’t until we boarded our mainly empty flight, late on a Thursday evening just over a month ago, that I finally started to allow myself to believe that we might see our family again. 

I'm very thankful to live in an age of modern technology. Whatsapp, Facebook and Zoom have enabled us to stay in touch, to share photos, to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices. My brother instituted a fortnightly (now monthly) family Zoom and it’s been one of the highlights of the pandemic, as far as I’m concerned. Just half an hour or so catching up with news and trivia has made all the difference to my feeling of being isolated from my relatives for so long. 

But it’s not the same as being together, and I hadn’t realised how much I had missed it until we were, at last, en route, and a little frisson of excitement started to rise in my chest. I was tired - our flight wasn’t until after my usual bedtime - and quite stressed; it had been a hectic week making all the arrangements necessary. I dozed once or twice, but can never really sleep on flights. 

We arrived on time, and found a taxi to take us to the nearby Travelodge. Previous experiences with waiting for the shuttle bus had persuaded us that it was worth paying a few extra pounds for the comfort and convenience of a taxi when arriving at 1.30am. 

Gatwick Travelodge is a familiar place, but we had never before booked two nights there. This was necessary for various reasons, including the lateness of our flight. We had decided to have a day to ourselves - to pick up our rental car about noon on the Friday, so we could take it easy after the substantial Travelodge ‘all you can eat’ breakfast.

Collecting the car was not stress-free. This is an example of British understatement. We had opted for a different rental company this time, as our usual preferred one was charging extortionate amounts. But we should have known that it wouldn’t be easy. We did eventually get the car (which was fine, thankfully) but we left feeling irritated, having had to leave a very large deposit with the company, who did not trust our excess insurance. It was not a good start to our break.

When we arrived at the nearby shopping centre where we had decided to eat lunch and make some necessary purchases, I felt oddly nervous on seeing so many people milling about, many of them not wearing masks, and with little observance of any social distancing. We had N95 masks, and while I prefer the more comfortable cloth ones, we wore the more protective ones as we had no wish to acquire the virus and potentially pass it on to our vulnerable relatives.

There are always a few things we buy in the UK, that we can’t easily find in Cyprus. Solid deodorant, for instance. It's quite pricey, but each one lasts over a year, and can be taken in hand luggage on a flight. I usually buy a selection of inexpensive birthday cards, too. Richard was looking for a new backpack, I was looking for some new sandals. And he always likes browsing shopping centres. 

I had got beyond exhaustion into a kind of dazed auto-pilot, but we found lunch, and looked in shops, and then returned to the Travelodge. We had talked about finding a nice restaurant for our evening meal, but were so tired we decided to eat there and were pleasantly surprised at the choice and the quality, even if we had to wait rather longer than we would have liked for the meal to arrive.

Excellent curry at the Travelodge (Gatwick)

On Saturday we spent a very pleasant day with Richard's mother. Then to a nearby AirBnB, where the hostess had kindly agreed to take in our 'Day Two' PCR test packs, which had to be used on Sunday morning. That was a bit stressful - the instructions were not entirely clear, so we hoped we had taken suitable samples. Then, as we had not ordered courier-collection ones, we had to find a place to post them. We tracked down a priority mailbox, made a note of the tracking numbers, and photographed them going into the letter box - since it was Sunday, none of the Post Offices were open.*

We had lunch at a service station en route to our next destination, in the Midlands, which we reached at about 5pm. It was very good to see my father again after such a long time. 

We stayed at a nearby Travelodge, and then spent the whole of Monday with my father and stepmother. One of my brothers came for the day, with his wife and her granddaughter, and there was also a brief visit from my nephew and his wife. It was a lovely family day and I tried to appreciate every moment. 

On Tuesday we drove north again, and spent a couple of hours with my other brother and his wife. Then on to our last destination, the one I was looking forward to most: a whole week with our sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Our younger son was staying with the family, having moved out of his last flat in the south. So we had all our descendants together, for the first time in eighteen months. 

Spending time with the grandchildren was wonderful - we went with them to nearby parks, read them books, played board games, and chatted in ways that just aren’t possible when video chatting. We saw places they had talked about, so we can imagine them for ourselves.

Feeding ducks in a park in Carlisle

We relished every moment. Children change so rapidly during these early years, and they have such different, delightful personalities. 

skimming stones into a stream

Richard had been talking about sailing with them, on our video calls, and both children were excited at the idea. Since we have no idea when they might manage to get to Cyprus, he decided to rent a boat for an afternoon at one of the lakes in the Lake District. We had lunch there together, then three of us went to find hot drinks and some peace to read, while Richard took our older son and grandchildren out for a couple of hours. The boat was was apparently very like the boats in the book 'Swallows and Amazons', which the children have enjoyed listening to more than once. 

sailing at the Lake District

Since there wasn't room for all of us, we stayed for the week at a nearby AirBnB. It was a lovely place to stay, with a huge attic room, beautifully decorated with an ensuite bathroom, and some of the friendliest hosts we have met. 

Knowing how short the time was, I tried to make the most of every minute.  I knew I would find it difficult to leave, and would have liked to stay longer. But we had decided that I would return to Cyprus with Richard rather than rely on public transport to get to the airport, or to make further visits to other relatives. Twelve days in the UK felt like a huge adventure after such a lengthy period when travel was impossible.  It was never going to be long enough for me anyway. I think, in the circumstances, it was both the right time to go, and the right length of time to stay.  

To return to Cyprus from the UK, we didn't need to do any tests, as we're fully vaccinated. But we had to apply for and fill in the Cyprus Flight Pass, and download the EU Digital Covid Certificate. Richard had his computer with him, so did everything on that, as well as checking in at the airport. So with the boarding pass and the other two certificates, we each had three QR codes on our phones, to be scanned and validated before flying. 

On August 25th we drove to Newcastle Airport. Returning the rental car was, thankfully, straightforward, and the lady who dealt with us was a great deal more helpful and friendly than the guys at Gatwick. The airport is quite small, and many of the shops and eateries are still closed. but we found somewhere to eat lunch and bought sandwiches for the return flight. 

While it always takes me several days to feel myself again after a flight to Cyprus - and it was still hot and humid on our return - I felt refreshed and rejuvenated. And it's so lovely to have seen where our older son and his family are now living; last time we visited them, they were in Scotland. 

I have no idea when we will return to the UK, or see any of the family again, but it was a wonderful trip, appreciated all the more after the difficulties encountered in getting there. I'm hugely thankful to all who hosted us, and for every second we were able to spend with our loved ones. 

*PS It took three days for our PCR tests to reach the destination and another day to be processed. We did eventually receive notification that they were negative, but by that time we had visited four different households (six if we include the AirBnBs), and been out and about in the community.  We can see the point of tests before flying, but when we no longer needed to isolate, a 'Day Two' test, with results on about Day Six, doesn't seem to have any useful purpose. 

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Preparing to Travel from Cyprus to the UK

We usually - in the pre-pandemic days - travelled to the UK at least once per year, sometimes twice. All our immediate family members live in England now, scattered around the country. Last year we had to cancel the week we had booked with our sons and grandchildren in Scotland, as travel was impossible. I kept hoping to be able to visit, all through the Autumn of 2020, but it wasn't to be. Our younger son didn't even manage to come out to Cyprus for Christmas, for the first time in over a decade. 

I say this not as a complaint, but to give some context. Many are much worse off than we are from the family visit point of view; some, sadly, have lost loved ones during the past eighteen months. 

Cyprus has done fairly well as far as vaccination rate goes, though it was awhile before we were eligible to be jabbed. I had my first Astra-Zeneca dose in May, the second in July. Back in May when I booked it, I was somehow hoping that it might be possible to travel in August, and that being fully vaccinated might help. 

By the end of June, I was beginning to think we might have to wait another year without seeing any of the family, and that vaccination status was irrelevant. But in early July, realising that my passport would expire in November, I applied for a new one anyway. I knew that if any chance of travelling did come up, I would need at least six months' worth of validity... so I thought I might as well apply rather than potentially leaving it to the last moment if a travel opportunity came up.  

The site for applying online was surprisingly easy to navigate, clear in its instructions, and even allowed a digital photo taken on a phone. I had to send my old passport to the UK via recorded delivery, but was pleasantly surprised that, rather than it taking 11 weeks, as the site suggested, I had my new passport back before the end of July.

But the Covid case numbers in Cyprus were very high, and it was in 'Amber' status as far as the UK went. That meant that in addition to having to do a pre-flight antigen test, visitors to the UK had to book two PCR tests after arrival, and self-isolate for ten days. An annoyance for Brits returning home, but really not an option for tourists, nor for visiting the family, unless the family lives somewhere isolated already and one is not trying to see a large number of different people.

Then it was announced that, from August 2nd, fully vaccinated tourists from 'Amber' countries would NOT need to isolate on arrival in the UK.  My heart beat a little faster. Maybe we would be able to see the family after all..

We started putting out feelers, wondering whether to fly at the end of the first week of August, Richard staying for ten days or so, while I might stay longer.  But nothing quite came together, and I never felt 'right' about it. 

Then, gradually, another plan evolved. I wouldn't stay longer than Richard- I wasn't entirely happy about using public transport - and we would play to stay at Travelodges or AirBnBs instead of with family members. That would reduce contact time at night and breakfast and would be less hassle for those we wanted to see.

This time, our suggested dates worked for everyone. Flight prices were surprisingly low (although car rental wasn't!) and we were able to find suitable accommodation in all our planned locations. 

Of course it's not that simple, this year. We had to book pre-flight tests. The UK government website makes it clear that they don't have to be PCR tests, they can be the rapid antigen tests, but must have paperwork saying they meet certain criteria. We also had to book PCR tests - just one each - to use on Day Two in the UK.  That was quite complicated to arrange, and a tad pricey, but the AirBnB host for that day was happy to receive them on our behalf. 

On August 11th, the day before we were due to fly, we went out to get our antigen tests. The first two pharmacies we went to were closed for most of August. We looked at a suitable lab, but there was a long queue in the hot sun. We eventually found a pharmacy with rapid tests being done outside, with no queue. The people involved in the testing looked at our printed list of UK government requirements, and said, 'Yes, yes, we do that'.  

'Is it okay for flights to the UK?' we asked. 

'Yes, no problem,' they said. We would have a printed form, they told us, and a text message on our phones. Eight euros each, which seemed reasonable. And while we were there, we bought some high quality masks to wear on the flights.

It was the first time either of us had had a Covid test, and it felt like a slight tickle in the nose. I was surprised they got anything at all. The results (negative, thankfully) appeared in about two minutes. Then we were given our forms, which looked very scrappy, and were mostly in Greek:

We were assured that everything was fine, that there were no other forms or paperwork they could do, and that the government would send us a text message with more information. 

A while later we did indeed receive text messages from the government, confirming that we were negative. This would be fine if we were just wanting a 'safe pass' to go to a big shop or church service. But since we're both fully vaccinated, we don't need those.  I didn't feel entirely happy about it, but hoped it would be all right. 

After that, we had to fill in the UK passenger locator forms, which must be done online. I don't know what people do if they don't have access to a computer.  It was reasonably straightforward, with options to check and edit every field if necessary, but a lot of information was required. We printed them out... more paperwork. 

In the evening we discussed our pharmacy antigen tests with a friend, who pointed out that the pharmacy hadn't even put our dates of birth on - and that's a requirement. Nor did they have any phone number to contact them. Perhaps, our friend suggested, we could go back and ask them to add this information, and give us a contact card. 

But on Friday morning, the day we were due to fly, we decided that, rather than get into a possible argument/debate with the pharmacy, and - more importantly - risk being turned away from the flight in the evening, we would go to a lab, even if we did need to queue for half an hour or more. Thankfully we didn't need to wait more than a few minutes, and it all seemed much more professional. And they only cost five euros each. 

Best of all, they gave us printed forms that included all the necessary information (I have, of course, cropped parts with personal details from this photo - but it shows how much more professional it looks than the first one)

Rapid Antigen test results for flying to UK

Having said that, there was a slight glitch when Richard saw that they had spelled his name wrong, and they initially gave me someone else's form. So they had to re-check and find mine, and edit his name to print another. But at last we had what, we hoped, we needed. 

When we got back, we sorted out clothes to take, and worked out that we wouldn't need to book an extra bag, as Richard had feared. So we wondered if we would be able to check in online. Most people we know of who have flown in the past couple of months have said it was impossible - the airport staff want to check every document. It's not unreasonable, since they have to check certificates etc, and apparently doesn't take much longer.

But he tried anyway, and to our surprise we succeeded in checking in. Boarding cards appeared, not to be printed but for our phones. Just as well I have a smartphone now. We were only flying with hand luggage - on a slightly upgraded kind of ticket that allows two full-size cabin bags, and two smaller under-seat ones. 

So the boarding pass was paper-free, but the amount of paperwork we had to print was considerable: 

That included information about all the locations where we were staying, the rapid test results, details of the ordered PCR tests, car rental... and details of the flights too, although we knew we probably wouldn't need those. 

When we arrived at the airport, we went straight through security with our phone boarding passes, and the various checks - passport, luggage scans etc - were much quicker than usual. The airport looked almost empty - we had never seen it so quiet. We had quite a wait, and were wondering if we'd have to show the antigen test paperwork to anyone - but we did, at the boarding gate. A man there asked to see our vaccination certificates, and also the negative test results. Thankfully everything was fine, and we finally boarded the emptiest flight I can remember.

At last, I allowed myself to hope that we really would soon be seeing our family!

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Sorting our Guest Flat

The ground floor of our house is a separate flat - it was the house that was originally built on our plot, before the owners extended upwards. Since we moved here in 2006 we have considered it our 'guest flat' - and over the years it's been quite widely used. We've had relatives staying, and friends, and friends of friends... we've also had people connected with Richard's work, and other random people, needing a place to stay. The only criteria is that if we don't know them, we know someone who can vouch for them.

We don't run it commercially - it's not an AirBnB or anything like that - it's part of our home. When it's not occupied by guests it sometimes gets used for construction work, or things related to Richard's boat. Some years it's quite busy, other years less so.  And, of course, last year there were virtually no visitors at all. We did have someone who stayed a few nights over the 2020 New Year, but then she was able to go somewhere else that was more convenient. Visitors due to come in the spring - and the autumn - had to cancel as the world went into lockdown. 

In September last year, we did host the son of friends who flew back from another country and had to self-isolate for a week or so, and a few weeks later hosted a young woman who was here for a few days working with the refugees. But I don't think either of them did any cooking - one had food provided by his family, the other was out and about.  We did a quick vacuum and mop before both these people arrived, of course, and ensured the bedding and towels were clean. But it was a long time since we did any serious cleaning - there didn't seem to be much point, as nobody has stayed there since October 2020. 

At the start of June this year, we hosted our first barbecue of the season for our closest friends. I realised as I took lids off salads that I hadn't brought down sufficient serving spoons, so I popped into the guest flat and grabbed a couple out of the drawer. And was shocked at the mustiness. I washed them, of course, and afterwards they went through our dishwasher. But I made a mental note that before we had any guests in the flat, we would need to go through all the drawers and cupboards, and wash all the cutlery and crockery. 

For about six months the second bedroom in the guest flat was full of boxes belonging to some other friends who have moved to a different country.  And although we've had a lot of people provisionally booking to come and stay in the Autumn, there wasn't anyone due to come before then. But I felt the urge to get started with the cleaning and sorting while the weather wasn't quite as hot as it was likely to be in July and August. So when I stopped walking with Sheila towards the end of June - as it was starting to get hot - I decided to spend an hour or so each day, first thing, doing some sorting in the guest flat. Richard was able to move the boxes, and also took away the last of his tools and sailing bits and pieces... and I began. 

I started with the main/front bedroom, as that seemed like the easiest. I washed the curtains and cleaned the windows, and the radiator (which was full of dust). We cleaned the air conditioner, and I washed the mattress cover and pillowcases that were out, and dusted and mopped.  That took a couple of days, but it was quite satisfying when it was done: 

guest flat front bedroom

Each day I did another load in the guest flat washing machine - other curtains, bedding, musty towels and tea-towels - but there's not a lot of hanging space outside, so I limited it to one load per day.  I did a load of washing up too - all the mugs, and then the cutlery, and then started on the pots and pans and other containers, leaving each load to dry before I embarked on the next.

And then I tackled the games cupboard - possibly not a priority for most of our likely guests, but it was beginning to smell more than musty. I'm not sure if the dampness on the bottom was due to a leak somewhere, or just the excessive humidity. But however it happened, some of the jigsaws at the bottom - old ones, mostly - and one or two of the games were beyond any hope of repair.  We have all our favourite games upstairs, so it wasn't a huge loss.  

Having got rid of the worst,  I washed everything that was plastic, sat musty boxes out in the sunshine, and realised that we really didn't need half a dozen different sets of chess pieces, or games with half the tokens missing. I found somewhere else to put the jigsaws and decided to limit the games to the top shelf of the cupboard only, at least until we discover the source of the dampness. The damp patch is rather obvious in this photo - I took this after thorough cleaning of the cupboard as well as sorting, cleaning and rationalising the games:

games cupboard with damp patch at the bottom

Friends had asked if we could host some of their friends for ten days or so in the middle of July, so suddenly there was a motivation to get the flat finished - and I was beginning to feel more and more overwhelmed. By the end of June, I was realising that just an hour a day was not going to get everything done, so we both spent more time sorting. I was glad it wasn't just me, as it turned out that some of the pots and pans were also past redemption - and there were so many of them, some broken, some mouldy.  We took everything out and began the task of sorting out and cleaning what looked as if it might be useful:

sorting cupboards, lots of stuff on top

Given that most of our visitors stay only a week or two, and are out and about - or, if they're family or close friends, eating with us - it's really not necessary to have a vast amount of kitchen equipment in the flat. Particularly things that are broken, or can't be properly cleaned. We've tended to put things there when we run out of space upstairs, or invest in something new. And some visitors have left things behind for the flat - so we were fairly ruthless about getting rid of any rubbish, or anything that clearly hasn't been used in a decade or more.  

So the air conditioners were cleaned, and everywhere was dusted, and everything washable had been washed... but it still smelled a bit musty, though considerably better than it had done. And some of the drawers and cupboards (such as the bottom of the games cupboard) looked rather unsavoury, despite having been thoroughly cleaned. 

So we bought some inexpensive drawer-lining stuff, in white, and on the first Saturday of July determined to finish - if at all possible. We bought a small dehumidifying device for the games cupboard, too. 

The drawer lining made a huge difference to - for instance - the under-sink cupboard, which had been plagued with leaks for years until Richard replaced all the plumbing earlier in the year:

under the kitchen sink

However, although we spent about three hours in the flat that morning, and achieved a considerable amount, it still wasn't completely tidy. And we were exhausted. By that stage the people due to come in the middle of July had cancelled, and although we'd had a query about early August, we knew those guests weren't likely to make it. And there didn't seem much point doing final mopping and vacuuming - or sorting the last few bits and pieces - if we weren't having any guests until the middle of September. 

Then we had a query about the whole of August, from a family who have been before. As the flat was available we were able to say 'yes'.  And then, last Thursday, a young friend called to ask if by any chance a friend of his could stay, as her brother had tested positive for Covid, and she was told that if she wanted to continue working, she had to be away from him.  

So on Thursday afternoon, we did the final cleaning and tidying. I put the washed sofa throw and cushion covers back in the living room:

I put sheets and a duvet cover on the bed, and got out a fan:

Richard got rid of the last of the rubbish, and vacuumed, and swept, and I mopped:

And suddenly it looked like a habitable guest flat again, ready for visitors. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Summer easing in gradually; restrictions ease

It's a bit of a shock to realise that my last post was early in March. Time seems to expand and contract more randomly than usual in these Covid-dominated years.  The weeks go by, and the main topics of conversation with everyone cover the epidemiological situation in various countries, the different vaccines, and the pros and cons of cloth or disposable masks.  We check numbers of new cases daily, we chat online with our family, and we wonder if we're ever going to be able to travel again...

Back to March, and one of my first signs of spring advancing well is a freesia blooming: 

pink freesia blooming in Cyprus late spring

Not many of my freesias flowered this year, and those that did have all reverted to this bright pink which has very little scent. Perhaps I should buy some more in the autumn. 

In March, we were allowed to have up to four visitors in our homes, theoretically for up to three hours at a time. We were able to send up to two text messages per day asking for permission to exercise, or go shopping, or to visit friends. The limit of four visitors didn't entirely make sense, since it meant that we were able to visit out closest friends (who are, currently, a household of six) but they could not all come here at the same time. 

We were also still allowed to exercise outside with one other person, so I continued walking by the Salt Lake with my friend Sheila first thing, three times per week. We realised that we take the flamingoes rather for granted once they have arrived and established themselves for the winter. But I did take one photo:

flamingoes in the Larnaka Salt Lake

It rained, off and on; not excessively, and thankfully there were no leaks from our roof. And, as always happens in March, the yellow shrubs and wild flowers bloomed - and I managed one relevant photo of 'yellow month' too: 

yellow shrubs in March, Cyprus 'yellow month'

It was quite chilly, sometimes, first thing. But we reminded ourselves to be thankful...

Now that we're part of the local Anglican church, we celebrate according to the Western calendar, which is out of step with the rest of the island. So there was a service on the UK Mothering Sunday where we were given little posies:

And Western Easter, on April 4th: 

But I'm leaping ahead of myself. On the last Wednesday of March, the monthly outside book sale at the church was allowed to happen for the first time since the end of November: 

A week or so after Western Easter, Richard was on his way out when a neighbour across the street called him over, and said he should have some lemons. A tree was absolutely loaded with fruit, and if they're not picked then next year's blossom won't be so strong - and there's also the risk of hundreds of rotting lemons all over the ground. The neighbour was giving bags of lemons to everyone who would take them: 

This happened twice. I froze lots of lemon juice in ice cube trays, for those occasions later in the year when I need a tablespoon of lemon juice and don't have any fresh ones. I froze larger amounts, too, in the hope that maybe one of our sons will be able to come out at some point, and I will make lemonade to celebrate. I no longer make lemonade it as it tends to give us mouth ulcers. 

I made lemon cake, and experimented with three different kinds of dairy-free lemon curd, including two vegan ones which were quite successful, if a tad runny. I made candied lemon peel... and I dehydrated as many lemons as I could:

I froze them in small tubs, and made the happy discovery that just one slice of dehydrated lemon in a jug of water gives a very pleasant lemony flavour. 

My birthday approached; last year we couldn't see anybody at all, so I wanted to celebrate with our friends - we are always invited to birthday meals for them, including the children. But we couldn't have more than four people in our house. They came up with the brilliant idea of us going to theirs instead - so we bought takeaway chicken, potatoes and salad, and I cooked a supermarket spanokopitta, and made extra salad and a pineapple cake with dairy-free cream cheese topping. And a dairy-free lemon cheesecake. Yes, we still had lemons...

We had leftovers, too, for a couple of days afterwards.

It was around this time that I realised our patio plants were starting to look very dry, so I began watering again first thing, three times a week, on days I don't walk with Sheila.

But the Covid case numbers in Cyprus were looking very bad. Vaccination was taking a while to be rolled out, and we were seeing over 700 new cases per day reported; this is an enormous number for such a small country. The UK was doing better and better, with their extensive vaccine programme, but the hospitals in Cyprus were getting overloaded.

So as the last week of April and the first week of May were Easter holidays for the schools (Greek Easter being May 2nd) the government decreed a two-week lockdown: just one outing per day allowed, no visitors in houses, no church services, all shops shut other than those selling food, and pharmacies. The April book sale was cancelled, and while the Orthodox Churches were allowed their Holy Week liturgies and a mass for Holy Saturday, with an extended curfew until 1am that morning only, there was no congregation allowed in Sunday services for two weeks. 

Bizarrely, though - or perhaps they knew that this would happen anyway - we were allowed one exception to the 'no visitors' rule, on Greek Easter Sunday. Better still, rather than being limited to four visitors, groups of up to ten in total were allowed to gather. So our friends came over for the first time this year, for a Sunday afternoon of games, a DVD for the younger ones, and a shared cold meal which ended with rather a lot of chocolate:

home made chocolates for Greek Easter in Cyprus

I was able to book a vaccination for a week ago, and today, at last, Richard has managed to book one too  (for tomorrow).  Vaccinations are happening rapidly in Cyprus now, and over 40% of the population has had the first one.  Case numbers are going down again - between 100 and 300 the last few days, with the hospitals doing much better - so the two-week lockdown came to an end on May 10th, and the SMS permission requirement has been shelved. 

Instead, people need 'safe passes' to go to certain places - big retail shops, church services and other potentially crowded venues. We could have rapid tests, but don't fancy waiting outside in the heat, in long queues, but as we can go to most shops anyway, we're not too worried. In a fortnight's time I will be 'safe' anyway, due to having had my first vaccination three weeks earlier. 

At the end of April, we had something of a heatwave - it was up to thirty degrees, a couple of times, during the middle of the day. It stayed reasonably cool overnight, and it wasn't humid, but we did start using the ceiling fans - for a few days, until it cooled down again. We had been using our winter-thickness duvet (9 tog and 4.5 tog held together with paperclips) for months, but on May 1st I removed the thin one, giving us just the medium one. A week later I switched them, and washed the medium one so it could be packed away until the Autumn. Just a week after that, I put the thin one away too, so we just have a double duvet cover. Even though it's cooled down since the end of April, thankfully, we don't seem to need more. 

We also put away some of our winter clothes, and dug out our shorts and tee shirts. I'm gradually washing jackets and packing those away for the autumn. And whereas the temperatures have often soared into the mid-thirties again by mid-May, it's not happening this year. So far, anyway.  Last year, my Facebook memories inform me, it was 39C in the shade on May 19th. This year, it's a mere 26 degrees today, with 28-29 predicted for the next few days. Jeans would be fine, but having moved to the shorts part of the year, I'm somehow reluctant to switch back again. 

It's good that the temperatures aren't too extreme, because Richard's boat is currently out of the water having its 'dry dock' maintenance, something he plans to do every other year. He had hoped it would be lifted out a couple of months ago, but arranging it all took much longer than usual. His Kingfisher Yacht Cyprus blog gives photos and descriptions of what he's been doing, if anyone is interested.

We need to clean our air conditioners within the next couple of weeks, and I should give the curtains their annual wash before it gets too hot to think. If only it would remain like this, sunny and warm but neither too hot nor humid... 

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Putting up Curtains in Cyprus

 We  have new curtains in our dining room. 

new curtains in our Cyprus dining room

It sounds so simple. But somehow things are never quite as easy here as one might expect...

Way back in 2006 when we moved to this house, we installed blinds over those windows. There wasn't space for the wooden pelmets that are everywhere else in the house, and we found some wooden slatted blinds that fitted perfectly, and for fourteen years or so they were just fine. Well, except for a broken slat (courtesy of one of the cats) on one of them. And the thing to turn the slats up or down had broken on the other. But we hadn't seen wooden blinds anywhere else - the shop where we originally bought them is long gone - and they were basically okay...

Then, towards the end of last year, one of the strings broke and we had a very lopsided blind. We managed to manoeuvre it into a horizontal position, but there it was stuck. We couldn't move it up, or down. So it was a bit draughty, on chilly evenings, and couldn't let sunshine in during the daytime. Not a huge problem in the fairly mild winter we've been having, but I knew that, once summer starts, I will want that window blocked from the morning sunshine. 

broken blind over a window

We had an identical blind in the kitchen, but that one broke a year or so earlier, and we replaced it with a basic white blind from Mr Bricolage:

functional kitchen blind in cyprus

It's functional, but not attractive. So we didn't want something like that in our dining room.  And there really wasn't much else available. There are very thin blinds that are a bit prettier, which are fine for blocking sunlight but not so good for keeping the cold out. And they didn't come in the right size anyway.

So we started thinking about using a pole rather than a pelmet, and hanging curtains, which we like better than blinds anyway.  We looked in a few shops and didn't see anything that we liked. But, early in January, right before the recent lockdown, we were in the Larnaka Thrift Store, and saw some that were in good quality fabric and the right width, in a pattern with colours that we knew would go well in the dining room. They were also at a good price. 

I knew I would have to make them shorter, but that wasn't a problem. So we bought them, and I put them through the washing machine, and we hung them on the back of a chair in the dining room so we wouldn't forget about them. 

curtains hanging on the back of a chair

Meanwhile we went back to Mr Bricolage, where we knew we had seen curtain poles and other necessary fixings. We headed for the light pine-style wood, as it's our default choice, and bought a couple of poles of suitable diameter (albeit a bit long), as well as matching end pieces, and curtain rings and so on.  

curtain rings and end pieces

The poles balanced nicely against two of our bookcases: 

two pine curtain poles

We knew another lockdown was imminent, but it seemed like a good project for an evening when we couldn't see friends and didn't have any other plans.  

It did occur to me, after a couple of days, that although we like light wood, and usually choose it, our dining room is full of dark wood items.  But we didn't really feel that we could take it all back and ask to replace it just because we weren't thinking when we bought it. We shrugged, and decided it probably wouldn't matter.

A couple of days into the lockdown, I realised something was missing.  We had forgotten to buy suitable pieces to fix the rods to the wall.


So for the whole of January, when all non-essential shops were closed, the curtains stayed on the back of the chair, and the rods - except for one incident with the cats, which rather scared them - stayed against the bookcases, and the rest stayed in the bag.

The lockdown started easing slightly on February 1st, with retail shops re-opening a week later, on February 8th. 

So we went back to Mr Bricolage, found four pieces to fix rods to the walls, and brought them home. 

We then discovered that although the poles were 28mm diameter, these fixings were for 20mm poles.

Oops again. 

And although the lockdown is eased, we're still limited to just two outings per day, after sending text messages to the government. One can't just pop out at any time. So the following day, we went back to Mr Bricolage, and explained our problem to the helpful young woman at the returns desk.

Unfortunately, there were no fixings for 28mm poles. The return desk woman came and checked too.  She called the manager, who also checked, and then told us that these were end of stock, so they didn't have any alternatives. He didn't know if they would be stocked again, and all he could suggest was that we returned the poles and other fittings that we had bought before the lockdown, and look elsewhere.

We did look in a couple of other shops, but to no avail. We could possibly have gone to various other curtain shops, and might eventually have found fixings for 28mm poles. But instead of spending potentially hours doing so, we decided that we would do as the manager suggested. And then we could legitimately look for dark wood poles and fixings, which would undoubtedly look better.

Mr Bricolage was extremely efficient and friendly, so we returned everything a couple of days later, and were given a refund.

But then we were back to square one. Or, perhaps, square two, as we did still have the curtains hanging on the back of a chair, so much part of the scenery that we barely noticed them any more.

A few days later, our friend Sheila said she was going to Ikea in Nicosia and asked if we wanted anything from there. We checked their online catalogue, but they didn't have any curtain rods that we liked. However, very close to Ikea is another DIY store called Leroy Merlin. And their online catalogue showed curtain rail 'kits', in dark wood, the right length, and a good price. Most importantly, the parts to fix them to the wall were included.  So Sheila brought them back for us, and at last we had everything we needed. 

Richard was very busy at the time, but just over a week ago, on Monday evening, he felt like doing something different. So he decided to put the curtains up.  

He took down the first blind.  He started drilling holes... and his drill stopped working.  Evidently it wasn't going to be simple... 

The fuse was fine, but the drill - which is probably five or six years old - was not.  So after we had eaten, in the midst of tools and a taken-down blind and some dust, he called Sheila again and went to borrow her drill for the evening.  By that stage with nothing on the window he didn't want to stop.

What a great moment it was when the first curtain rod was in place!

curtain pole and rings

And even more so when the first curtain, with the hem very roughly pinned, was up!

Compared to the previous problems, the disruption caused by Lady Jane when I was trying to pin the hems in place was almost irrelevant...

cat makes it difficult to pin up hem on curtains

The second one went up more quickly, and at last we had two curtains in place:

two curtains in place

Yes, the colours look different in the photo, due to different lighting, but they are the same, bluer than either of them look.

For the next week, I admired them, and enjoyed them, and felt very thankful. 

Then yesterday I decided it was time to sew the hems. And I wanted to do it properly, not just roughly while the curtains hung in place.  So I took the first one down, and extended our dining room table to its fullest length, and measured the hem exactly, ensuring it was the same all the way along. 

measuring hem for curtains

Lady Jane usually sleeps in the morning, but decided that what I was doing was far more interesting than a nap: 

cat examining curtain spread out on the table

Despite her 'help', I finished pinning, and cut off the excess material.  Then I got out the iron, something I haven't done for at least a couple of years, probably longer. It was a bit dusty, as was the ironing board, but thankfully the iron still worked. 

the unusual sight of an iron in our household

Hemming is one of the few useful skills I learned at school and still remember.  So I carefully ironed and re-pinned, and then sat down again to do the sewing. It wasn't quite 'invisible' - my needlework teacher would have tutted a bit - but with such a strong pattern, the tiny bits of thread didn't really show. 

Of course, Lady Jane thought that sewing thread was another game, and I spent as much time moving her as I did sewing...

cat (not) helping with sewing a hem on curtains

But, at last, the hem was finished, and I hung the curtain up again. 

And one corner drooped.  

drooping curtain end

I thought perhaps I needed to pull the curtain strings a bit tighter, or that it would hang out... or maybe that the radiator wasn't properly square so it was an optical illusion. After all, I measured so carefully.  

When I showed Richard, and explained what I had done, he said that it might have made more sense to measure from the top of the curtain, rather than from the bottom.  And when he did measure, one end was about 3cm longer than the other. 

Yet another oops.

I was not happy. But I followed his suggestion with the other curtain, in the afternoon (when, thankfully, Lady Jane was asleep) and when I hung it up, it was much more even.  So I sighed inwardly and took the first one down, and measured from the top.  One end was the same length as the middle, so I only had to re-sew half of it. I really didn't want to. But I knew that if I left it, I wouldn't get around to it. And we'd both look at it from time to time, and find it irritating. Much better to get it right at the start.  And it was a great deal quicker hemming without feline interruption.

And so, just eight weeks after finding the curtains (and probably four months since the blind broke) we finally have completed curtains.  

In a slightly ironic postscript to this saga, the other job Richard needed to do was to fix quite a major leak in the pipes under our kitchen sink. Not a job he looked forward to, as the old pipes were in a tremendous muddle. Hanging curtains, he had thought, would be much more satisfying and straightforward.  

But in the event, the plumbing took him about half an hour. He had all the pieces he needed, including some special cement.  And it worked perfectly, first time.

under-sink plumbing in Cyprus

Friday, January 15, 2021

Half-way through January

It's only three weeks since Christmas. That's easy enough to calculate, of course, but it feels like much, much longer. December - when we were still able to have up to ten people meeting at a time - seems like a distant dream.

Christmas Day was pleasant despite being unable to see any of our family. We were able to go to a church service in the morning, albeit in a masked and distanced way, and it was good to see people. Our closest friends came over for lunch, and games in the afternoon, followed by a high tea where none of us felt hungry, but all of us ate plenty.  

lots of food for Christmas high tea

On Boxing Day we didn't do much; on the Sunday we had some other friends to lunch and mainly ate leftovers. 

It almost felt like normality. 

But the Covid numbers were climbing. On December 28th, there were 751 new cases announced in Cyprus.  That's equivalent to around 50,000 in the larger countries of Western Europe, or the UK. This is a small country, and while the hospitals weren't yet full, the authorities were getting worried. The restrictions - such as they were - from mid-December were due to end on January 11th. Schools were closed until then, and only two people were supposed to meet outside, although - bizarrely - we could still be with up to eight other people indoors.

On 29th December, after an emergency meeting, the government announced that people could no longer visit anyone else's home. That was in place until December 10th, we were told, but on New Year's Eve there was a relaxation of the rules. We could invite one other family to our home, and the curfew would not start until 1am on New Year's Day rather than 9.00pm as it had been the rest of the time. 

So Richard took the opportunity of inviting some friends to sail on New Year's Eve; it seemed reasonable to be able to count his boat as part of our home, and was safer (from the virus perspective) since it's outside rather than indoors.  And as the wind was light, and the weather not too hot, I went too. For my first time on his boat Liza. 

sailing in Cyprus on New Year's Eve

It was an enjoyable day, and I said I might even go again at the end of 2021. 

In the evening we were the one household invited to our other friends for an evening meal and games; I just about managed to stay awake. I really wanted to make sure 2020 had gone... even though it took me a few days to catch up on the lost sleep. I don't do well with late nights!

So from January 1st we were back to virtual meetings only, with the exception that two people from different households are still allowed to meet outside for exercise. So I continued walking first thing with my friend Sheila. Sadly, although daily Covid case numbers dropped a bit, they were still in the four hundred range, so we knew the restrictions were not going to be relaxed on January 11th. Indeed, it was fairly certain that we'd be subject to another lockdown. 

That has proved to be the case; it was announced last week that from January 10th until the end of the month we must stay at home, other than 'essential' outings, for which we must send an SMS request to the government. But it's not as strict as the lockdown last spring.  For one thing, we're allowed two daily requests rather than being limited to one. Somehow that makes an enormous difference.

We're also allowed to walk in parks or on beaches, as exercise is one of the permitted reasons for going out. And two unrelated people can still meet for exercise, though no more than two (unless one of them has under-age children with them). 

The weather has been very mild, with no rain at all until Wednesday when there were several heavy showers. That meant that on Thursday morning, the flamingoes were much closer to the shores of the Salt Lake than usual. I didn't have my camera with me, of course, but was able to take a slightly better photo of a few of them with my phone: 

And I took a video, albeit not great quality, showing flamingoes walking, and some of them flying.  (If you decide to watch it, it looks better if you either use the full-screen option or click the YouTube option to see it there).

Walking first thing is not just good exercise, and a chance to spend time with a friend, it's a great start to the day, which gives me more energy and focus.  At least, in theory. It's not easy to get things done in this continued uncertainty. And while we had plans to do various things in the house, we didn't manage to get organised enough to buy what we needed before the current lockdown. All shops deemed non-essential are closed, although many more now offer online ordering. 

So the first week has almost ended, and it hasn't been too bad. Perhaps it's easier because we've done it before. Maybe it's less stressful because we're no longer worried that the virus might leap up at us from the supermarket. We all wear masks, and of course we do wash our hands when we arrive home, as it's a good idea in general. But I often forget to sanitise my hands on the way in and out of shops, and it's not enforced. Nor is anyone wearing those horrible disposable plastic gloves that were required back in the spring last year. 

And perhaps it's less worrying because, although the scope of Covid has been far, far worse than anyone imagined, the vaccinations offer hope, at last, that the elderly and the most vulnerable will be safe. Of course it's very difficult for many businesses, hard hit by last year's lockdown, suddenly having to close again. Some may never recover. 

The positive case numbers have been a bit better - around 250-350 the last few days, reflecting the fact that we haven't been able to meet in other people's houses since the start of the year. We don't know what will be announced for February; perhaps 'non-essential' businesses will be able to open again, if the numbers stabilise and the hospitals stop being over-crowded. But I doubt if we'll be allowed to get together with friends inside for some time to come. 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas Eve greetings from Cyprus

I have written a post each year for the past decade on - or close to - Christmas Eve. So as Richard is currently carving the turkey, with the doors closed to keep the cats out, I thought I might as well continue the tradition. 

The previous posts have started with an illustration of our Christmas cake, each one pretty similar to all the previous ones. I iced this year's cake yesterday, using home-made icing (with aquafaba rather than raw egg white) and since we had almost an entire tub of glacé cherries, I put some of those on, just to make it slightly different from previous years.

Christmas Cake with glace cherries

This is not, of course a typical Christmas. We miss our sons desperately, particularly Tim who has spent every Christmas with us, other than one, until this year. But travel from the UK is difficult at present, with Covid-test requirements, and now seven days of hotel quarantine. There's no guarantee of being able to get back again, either. So, sadly, it didn't make sense for anyone in the family to come out to Cyprus this year. 

The case numbers in Cyprus have been getting worse, but - so far - we're still allowed to gather with up to eight other people in our home. Church services were cancelled, so everything moved online, including last Sunday evening's carol service. But the government has made a concession to the Orthodox Archbishop and has allowed congregations to meet (so long as they are masked, distanced and no more than one person per three square metres) on Christmas Day only. So we will be able to attend a live service tomorrow, rather than just streamed. 

Our local friends who usually join us for Christmas will, unless some disaster strikes, be coming for lunch tomorrow. Which means that, despite wanting to keep it simpler than usual, I found myself baking and cooking far more than will be eaten in two meals. I like to over-cater - much better than running out, although there has never been a danger of that. Besides, if there's too much food, then I don't have to cook anything much else for several days, and that's always a good thing.

It's been a long and depressing year, and I realise that it has been considerably worse for many others than for us. Our hearts go out to those who have been bereaved, or who have suffered badly with the virus and its after-effects. We hope and pray that the vaccines will be effective, and that, gradually, more normal life can resume in the spring. 

Christmas candles

As I said in the last post I wrote, we only sent six Christmas cards this year, and didn't expect to receive many. Until yesterday we had received eight, two of them giving to us by local friends. Then we went to the Post Office to check our box, just in case there was anything... and there were thirteen cards, all from the UK, posted between November 30th and - astonishingly - December 17th.  And one card arrived in our letter box outside our house. 

So in addition to last year's cards, which we always put up as part of our regular decorations (since the majority arrive in January), we have MORE new ones than usual before Christmas this year, displayed on a couple of bookcases:

Christmas cards

Rather than rambling on for longer, I will end this post with a photo of our living room a week or two back when Richard put a fire - complete with crackling noises - on our television. 

Christmas tree and virtual fire

It almost made the room feel warmer:

Wishing peace and blessings to all for this most unusual Christmas season. 

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

First eight days of December

Although Advent started on November 29th, I wasn't quite ready to start thinking about Christmas preparations until December started. Well - other than making our cake a month ago, and feeding it a couple of times with extra brandy.  And something else I order online for a selected few people, which had to be done before the end of November.

Then I realised I had to think about Christmas cards. Many people are not sending any this year, due to extremely slow postal deliveries. The number of cards we send out has reduced significantly over the years: from about seventy ten or so years ago to just thirty-five last year. That's partly due to losing touch with some folk, for various reasons (including a small number who, sadly, have died), and partly because more and more people are now sending Christmas greetings by email rather than in the post.

Since we didn't go to the UK in the summer, I had no chance to buy Christmas cards for this year; I've never much liked those I can find here (and it's not easy to find them at all - or maybe I'm looking in the wrong places). I discovered that I had a handful of reasonable cards that I was willing to send - but nowhere near 35. So that made the decision easy:  I wrote just six cards, to relatives who are a generation above ours - even though most are on email anyway. 

six envelopes with Christmas cards

I even had six UK stamps in my desk. So last Tuesday, the first day of December, I walked to the Post Office, and put the cards in the letter box.  I have no idea if they will arrive in time for Christmas... 

Something else I usually do early in December is to make a batch of mincemeat and some Christmas puddings. But we still had half of last year's mincemeat in the fridge, and one Christmas pudding - so as we won't be doing much entertaining this year, I didn't need to make any more.

On Wednesday, December 2nd, we spent the morning with a local friend helping her publish her collection of forty-two short stories via Amazon KDP.  We have been very impressed with this method of self-publishing and have helped various people this year to publish their work. The quality is excellent and 'print-on-demand' means that there's no need for a publisher (or writer) to risk anything in advance.

In the evening, back on the Advent theme, I attended a short Advent service via Zoom, offered by St Helena's Church. 

I'm not entirely sure where Thursday disappeared to. We shopped on Friday, but only at the froutaria. We met our friends in the evening for a shared meal, as we usually do, and on Saturday I cleaned the house fairly thoroughly. 

On Sunday I did quite a bit of baking: some bread rolls, a pan of gingerbread, and some different biscuits for our shared afternoon with friends, and for Monday. And in the evening we went to the Christingle service at St Helena's. 

We weren't sure whether there would be room - there were strict limits on numbers of people who could attend any church service in Cyprus, and the maximum permitted in the St Helena's building was something like 28, with distancing between unrelated people or groups, and of course masks on all the time. However the service was streamed, and there was the possibility of seating outside. 


In the event, while twenty people watched online (and many more afterwards) exactly the right number of people turned up at St Helena's, and it was a pleasant service. I am very thankful we were able to go, because today new pandemic restrictions have been announced in Cyprus: there will be no more church services with congregation present until at least January. So the Carol service, Crib service and Christmas Day service will be online only.  That will be strange, and quite disturbing not to go to any church service at Christmas. 

On Monday the local Christian writing group had to meet in two groups, as there were eleven or twelve of us who wanted to meet, and no more than ten people can be present in anyone's house. We usually have a shared potluck-style lunch in December, but decided it was best not to do that this year. Perhaps we'll celebrate at Easter instead. Or whenever we are finally able to meet again as one group.

In the afternoon I went to the local book discussion group where we did have some Christmas nibbles to share during the meeting - there were eight of us, spread out in a distanced way around the table which was full of finger foods. 

Then on Tuesday, my friend Sheila and two of her daughters came over to help put up and decorate our Christmas tree. When I say 'help', that's how it was when the girls were smaller. But now they put the three together unaided, and decorate exactly as they wish.  They do an excellent job, and I rarely move or change anything. 

Christmas tree and cat

I started ordering presents for family members yesterday too - so much less stressful not struggling through Christmas crowds (not that it would happen this year). 

And in the evening, we watched that Christmas classic DVD 'Love Actually', which we hadn't seen for eight years. I had reservations about it when we first saw it, but enjoyed it a lot more last night.