Friday, February 27, 2009


I woke up yesterday (Thursday) morning realising that I am flying to England on Tuesday, Monday is a holiday, and my passport has expired. So I got Leo off to school – the Big Ones have half-term this weekend and Zenon was not feeling well – and called Sil (my Sister In Law) at work at eight. “No problem!” She works in the District Office, and if anyone could help me, she could. “Come in when you can!” Oh, it's good to have family in the right places!

My friend Angela needed me to help her move some boxes to her new apartment today, and I had agreed to be there by nine, so at 8.30 I left the house and drove the Land Rover townward, toward a black and roiling sky that was developing a bilious green tinge. Zenon stayed in front of the t.v., and the Big Ones had not yet surfaced. No one else was heading into town. The road was eerily empty – except for the occasional oncoming driver, invariably with headlights on.

At Angela's we loaded the van but decided to leave the trip until later – unloading cardboard boxes and schlepping them up an outside staircase in a downpour is no one's idea of fun. I got to Evzonas Photography for passport photos just as the first drops fell, and fifteen minutes later when I walked out again, the rain was still holding off, though the sky was very dark overhead and lightning flashed ominously. I called Zenon to tell him that there would be a storm, that it would be bad, and that he might lose electricity. “If you get scared,” I told him. “Wake the Big Ones. And if you really need help, Papoose and Yiayia are at home.” He wasn't bothered. Harry Potter has to deal with lightning, too.

I raced across town to the District Office, and of course couldn't find parking within 500 metres.

Sil works in the Old District Office – as opposed to the New Monstrosity next to the Courts. Her building dates from the Colonial Era – massive stone plastered white, with dark green wooden shutters, high ceilings, and graceful pointed Cypriot arches. I found her in a cubicle “Hey, you've been promoted! Got an office to yourself...” the last time I'd been in she was sitting behind a long desk with several colleagues. “Don't let it fool you, it's the same old stuff!” said she, handing me forms for a new passport and an i.d card. I started to fill them out, alternating between the Greek and the Turkish to figure out what information to put in which boxes. Then she took them from me and filled them in speedy Greek. Thank goodness! I can write Greek, but my letters look like a second grader's, and I get confused with the two O's and the five E's, so my writing tends to be a lengthy process.

She grabbed an umbrella. “Ela! Come on!” and off we went, through the labyrinth of corridors and courtyards, dodging the splashing down spouts, and into the cashier's room.

There ensued a lengthy conversation about the rain – no one's complaining, despite the massive inconvenience that twelve days of wet weather causes in a fundamentally arid land. We're all so pleased to see the water, that I've yet to hear any gripes, except about the road works. But that's another story. Then there was a long debate as to whether my Greek surname on my new documents should be spelled with a C in English to match the rest of the family's, or a K to conform to the EU rules about phonetic spelling in Greek. I would have chosen a C (my current passport spells it with a K) like Best Beloved's, but our air tickets had already been issued and the spelling was with a K. “You can change again in ten years time when you apply for a new passport!” Sil said. “For now, you'll have to be the only one of us to use a K.”

Then off to another office where the Lady in Charge told us that the documents would be ready on Tuesday. “But she travels on Tuesday and Monday's a holiday. Why not do them today?” Sil asked. We left with a muttered promise of tomorrow before lunch, and fortunately met a friend of Sil's who works in the same office on the way out. “By this afternoon, and you can take them with you after work,” he promised. Sil said she'd deliver them this evening when she goes home. Phew!

She splashed off to another office, and I headed through the gathering rain to the Land Rover. I had just reached it when the hail began.

The hill down to the post office was, literally, a river. Then I had to thread my way through the canyons of the Kato Paphos road works, at time sinking past the hubcaps in muddy water, profoundly glad that I was not in the white Toyota. How the Boy Racers manage with their low-clearance sportsters and expensive body-kits, I have no idea.

Yerouskippou, the last village before Paphos proper when you're coming from Limassol, has been enduring road works as it's central artery and village square are being renovated for well over a year. A couple of hundred metres are done at a time, necessitating long detours through narrow residential streets to left and right, and massive inconvenience to shopkeepers and residents within the stricken zone. The final stretch is undergoing treatment at the moment, and the roads that have been chosen to host the diversion are suffering badly from the rain and the heavy lorries. Only one lane is passable at a time, sometimes only on the footpath. Each time the trenches are filled in with sand, torrential rain scours them again, and the gutters are full of fist-sized rocks that have washed down from the banks and hillsides.

Inevitably people try and circumvent the detours and cut the wrong way down the one way stretches causing back ups, horn blowing, and raised and gesticulating fingers. This is where I like the Land Rover. It's bigger than almost anything else on the road – except the two Hummers in town – and when impatient young bucks rev their souped-up engines and try to intimidate me, I can occupy my rightful place on the road, smile serenely, and wait while they reverse. We did that twice on the way home.

As I was writing this yesterday evening, I heard a knocking on the window behind, and saw Sil, backlit by the glare of her headlights. “All done!” she said. “Have a good trip.” She dodged through the still-falling rain drops back to her car and I turned to Best Beloved. “Sunny in London, is it?”

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Party-Pooper Strikes Again

I hate Carnival here.

And I'm being neither a Puritain nor a snob. If people want to dress up and party, great. But there is something unspeakably tacky about Carnival in Cyprus.

Unlike Christmas, Carnival is a part of Cypriot culture: Easter is the biggest holiday of the Orthodox year, and a profoundly religious time for many people. Not only the elderly fast and attend church, and the processions and rituals involve the whole community. Stinky Thursday – when everyone eats souvla – is heartily observed, and Green Monday – the first day of Lent – is many people's favourite holiday. But the days between – Carnival, with frantic going-through-the-motions-of-parties-and-parades-because-that's-what-we're-supposed-to-do – send a shudder through me every year.

I sense the same attitude that I feel so often here: “It's for the kids, so it doesn't have to be quality. They'll never know the difference.” Like with the cheesy Christmas stuff and Agios Vassilis doling out presents at the schools, his slip-shod beard crooked, and trainers or Army boots showing under his sagging red suit. Even Milly is occasionally guilty of : “If something's just for the kids, it doesn't matter so much.”

Does my aversion stem from the tacky decorations? The roundabouts are full of cavorting harlequins and masks, some of which have blown awry in the recent storms and show their skeletons to all and sundry. The giant figure at the motorway terminus is almost obscene: is it a caricature of a black man, or just a poor portrayal, with outsize sunglasses and a silly striped hat? And what are his hands doing there by his ears as he leers at everyone arriving in town? Leo thought he looked funny, but I found him disturbing and very ugly.

Then there are the parties... for which everyone must have a costume. And such is the culture today that home-made costumes won't do at all. Years ago, when Alex was small, I made him a robot carnival costume out of tin foil and a large grocery box for a party with a few friends with children of the same age. A few years later we did Peter Pan for Alex and a pink fairy suit for Sophia – all hand-made, cheap, cheerful... and individual. But such attributes no longer acceptable.

Costumes have been on sale for the last month at supermarkets and specialty shops. Made in China, they must cost pennies per outfit – but the cheapest one for children is 30 Euros. And everyone must have one. How else can they keep up with the neighbours? Sophia insisted on a fairy outfit that she spent 48 Euros of her own money on, and plans to wear it to watch the parade through town on Saturday, despite the promise of more rain and temperatures in the low teens.

Zenon wants to be a ninja and Leo, a pirate. “Right. That's easy,” I thought, remembering that I had someone else's hand-me-down ninja suit in a cupboard and Zenon's old pirate trousers that, with a home made skull and crossbones hat and cutlass from Leo's pirate book, a t-shirt and a waistcoat from somewhere else would make a pirate outfit. But when I went to look, neither the ninja trousers nor the pirate ones were where they had been, and none of the second-hand shops had anything that would do. I caved in and bought two suits, feeling like Scrooge, and yet glad that I could make them happy: I seem to say 'No!' so often these days.

I feel cynical because I went to a public 'do' when Sophia was small, and it was a public bun-fight. Keo (one of the local breweries) was dispensing free beer and prizes (I never determined for what), and there were a couple of trays of greasy offerings. Once the beer had been drunk and the pastries scoffed, the DJ from the local radio station gave out the prizes and everyone evaporated. I couldn't see the point – and it wasn't just my lack of Greek.

The last time I took children to a school Carnival party was about eight years ago in Konia Elementary, and I swore that it would be the last time. The community hall became Bedlam. Children of all shapes and sizes in all manner of outfits – at least three each Superman, Spiderman, and Batman, as well as ninjas, pirates, clowns, princesses, fairies, and zombies – among others – took the place apart, tossing plastic chairs around, leaping from tables. A few parents cowered in a corner, sipping coffee or soft drinks from plastic cups and nibbling bakery cheese pies. “If your children want to do Carnival from now on,” I told Best Beloved when we got home. “You take them. It's up to the Cypriot Department, not me!” He returned the following year with: “I don't see what the problem is, Manamou. They're just children – a bit high-spirited!”

So I cringed inwardly when: “The party! The school party!” Zenon and Leo crowed, on coming home yesterday. “It's at six-thirty tomorrow evening!” Six-thirty is after Kay's hours, and with Best Beloved in Nicosia, I would have the honour of escorting them. If not, they would be the only ones to miss out, and in a school of thirty pupils, where they stick out already as the only half-breeds, I don't want to let them down. Then I saw the invitation, and hope flared: I double checked my translation with Phil, and he agreed that the 6.30 party at Athena Taverna was for the Parent Teacher Association: “But if you want to take children, no one will say anything.” I'm hoping that the children's party will be on Friday, when Best Beloved is home.

A reprieve. For now. And Kay has promised to take the children to the parade on Saturday afternoon because she always goes. I saw the floats a few weeks ago, dumped in the waste ground near the refugee housing at Moutallos. The same ones that are used year in, year out, they were piled up, higgledy-piggledy, getting the worst of the weather but due to be pressed into service yet again. But it doesn't matter if they list a little, or appear shabby because, “after all, Carnival's only for the children, and they'll never notice!”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Run, Rivers, Run!

Some of the rivers are flowing! For those of you (lucky sods) who live in temperate climates where rain actually falls between May and October, the notion of rivers actually flowing may seem a no-brainer. I feel a need to celebrate.

When we drove to school yesterday, Sophia craned her neck over the bridge after Achelia: “Holy Shakira, Mum! There's water down there!” I had seen some muddy puddles for the last few days, but yesterday, I saw more than puddles: water was actually flowing, running, making a rushing noise, cutting channels through the weeds, building up behind the low weir just downstream and crashing over it!

Does it do that every winter? Perhaps, though I don't seem to remember nearly so much last year.

After finishing the school run this morning I decided to go and look at the dam. The last time I saw it was August, and the lack of water was so scary that I haven't been back. I feel about the water crisis the way I feel about the economy and the Wars: I will do what I can do in my small way, within my circle, to keep the family going and help whom I can, but I refuse to look at the big picture and get all freaked out and depressed about it.

Best Beloved has been to the dam a few times – he walks with his father at the weekend – and is always telling me that I worry too much. “This is Cyprus, Manamou. It's dry for five years and the foreigners whinge, then the rains come and everything's fine again...” He's deaf to my insisting that there is more pressure on slender resources now, compared to when he was young: “It's a political problem, not a resource problem. When water is priced to reflect its scarcity, people won't squander it, and as long as the government is drilling boreholes and diverting our village's water for the HaPotami golf course, I refuse go short.”

Instead of taking the turn for our village, I took the earlier turn-off, and drove up to the top of the Asprokremnos Dam. I was not the only one. In the five minutes that I was there, two other cars arrived, their occupants getting out to lean their elbows on the concrete wall and gaze out over the water. Not good... yet. But I see the level creeping slowly upward through the striations on the rock that have marked previous levels toward the abandoned Turkish-Cypriot village of Finikas.

But the ghosts of citrus groves haunt the edges of the dam. They have been without irrigation water for two summers now, and where once mandarins, mandoras, lemons, and grapefruits shone between glossy greenery, grey, leafless limbs and twigs branch from withered trunks. All dead.

Six or seven years ago the dam overflowed. Such largesse is unimaginable today and the level at the moment is still about thirty metres below that point. But at least the scary promontories that were pushing further and further out toward the middle of the lake are covered. The new beaches that appeared as the waters fell have gone, and water birds are returning.

High on the natural bounty, and with cheeks tingling from the snow-bitten wind blowing from Troodos, I decided to see if the Dhiarizos, the biggest river in our part of the country, was flowing.

I had to go from Kouklia, so I turned off the main road and drove through the village, thrilled at the clarity of the morning light, the drifting blossoms, the way washing on the lines seemed to snap with glee. I passed the school, then paused on the top of the escarpment overlooking the valley.

I don't often stop, look around me, and appreciate what I have. Familiarity, as the old saying goes, breeds contempt. But this morning I looked out over the valley: the almonds and the figs the olives and the citrus – still irrigated here, as the water comes from an underground source, not the dam.

The cement road hugs the slope, passing a few turnings to orchards, a dilapidated hut or two. Then it crosses the river on a raised ford. My wheels didn't get wet – this channel is still not running, but when I reached the middle of the river bed, where cement conduits carry the road above the stones, I saw that there is some water. Most of it is still subterranean, but the fact that I can see it at all means that the river and the aquifer in the valley between here and the sea is filling.

When Phil, Best Beloved's father, was a boy, the river flowed on the surface all year round, with at least one pool deep enough for swimming – even during the summer. In wintertime the route between Nikokleia and Kouklia was impassable: the river filled its bed, uprooting trees as it rushed seaward after particularly heavy storms. But about fifteen years ago, when the second phase of the Southern Conveyer Project was begun, the river disappeared during the summer – diverted to the drier east – and in the winter and spring we get a downsized version. I don't think I've ever seen it really race.

As I turned for home, a few drops of rain splashed on the windshield. No field work today. That's fine. Let the rain come. I have three trays of lettuce to plant and lots of seeds that need starting. But I'm not about to pray for sunny weather so that I can roll my sleeves up and get started. There is plenty of sunny weather yet to come.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Chilly Economy

I went past the Dole office (unemployment exchange, for those who don't speak British English) last week. Kay's Social Security was due, and the offices are in the same building. The parking lot was jammed, and a crowd of people spilled out of the office, onto the pavement, and down the street. Most were Pontic Greeks. Some were English or other foreigners, and a rather frightening number were Cypriot.

'Pontis' – from Georgia or Ukraine – who came to Cyprus when the collapsing Soviet Union allowed them to apply for Greek passports and their Greek passports gave them a right of residency here, are the backbone of our cheap labour force. They're legal, so without the immigration hazards of Syrians, and they usually speak passable Greek. The men work construction sites, the older women do agricultural labour, and the young women serve in shops and supermarkets. Their particular dialect, a mixture of Turkish and Russian – sometimes leaning one way, sometimes the other – is as often heard as Greek or English.

Despite our politicians' assurances that Cyprus will remain unscathed by the economic turmoil knocking the rest of the world for six, the signs point to our facing a grim period. Friends are out of work with no sign of jobs on the horizon, and everyone is talking of cutting back. With hotel bookings down forty percent for the summer – most of our tourists come from Britain and the UK is looking at 2 million-plus unemployed, few of whom are considering a vacation on Aphrodite's Isle – hotels are considering closing... And our other major industry, housing for the foreign market, is suffering because building a second home isn't high on anyone's agenda, either.

The hoteliers are screaming to the government: “Do something!” The government is considering its options, and the whole shower of them need a good shaking. The deteriorating situation in the tourism industry has been building for years – ever since the hoteliers decided to take the Get-Rich-Quick route of catering to mass budget tourism instead of building up a quality product that can compete with the lower prices of our neighbours the Greeks, Turks, Egyptians, and Croats.

A few months ago TUI and Thompson – the companies that bring the lion's share of tourists to Cyprus – had a conference with the hoteliers to suggest changes that might raise the number of bookings to Cyprus. They cited prices and conditions as two of the reasons that tourists were opting for the competition over us. Our costs are too high, our waiters too rude, our hotels too ugly and too dirty.

I'm not in the tourism industry, so maybe I'm talking through my hat. But if I were, I'd be scrambling to improve my product instead of expecting the government to bail me out. Maybe it's too late for that: Cypriots own the businesses, but few work in them any more. Staff are Romanian, Bulgarian, Ponti, or Sri Lankan. Lacking a connection to this island, how can they promote it as effectively as someone who knows and loves it as home? Budget holiday-makers are increasingly opting for all-inclusive deals – meaning that they breakfast, lunch, drink, snack, and dine in the resorts, and smaller businesses – tavernas, bars, and cafes – are feeling the loss of business. Pretty soon they'll start letting staff go. Closing, even.

Bizarrely, the government approved a plan last month to build fourteen new golf courses (we only have three at the moment) in Cyprus – with attendant villas and hotel facilities. The water crisis means that each course has to have a desalination plant. Things keep getting crazier – from what I've heard, fewer people are playing at the golf courses we already have, and the houses planned for those sites have stopped selling. Does any one smell a kickback?

Speaking of property sales, last week Best Beloved pulled the figures from the Cyprus Land Registry for 2007-2008. Those for Paphos and Agia Napa, Cyprus' other great ex-pat centre, showed an 80% reduction in transactions. Limassol, Larnaca, and Nicosia weighed in at 70% down. Figures to February 2009 show a 90% decrease for Paphos. That's why all the builders are standing in line at the Dole.

The Dole is not easy to get here. The length of time that someone can sign on is directly proportional to how long they have been paying in – and after about six months, even someone who has been paying in for more than a decade sees a sharp drop in benefits. Collecting unemployment benefit is also not usual for Cypriots. Despite all the cracks about how locals are lazy gossips and non-stop coffee drinkers, there is a strong work ethic here. Many locals work two -- even three -- jobs rather than sign on, and to see Cypriots in the Dole queue was a shock.

“How,” I asked Best Beloved the other night. “Is the government going to afford all these payments?”

“It's not,” he answered. “Paphos went from a population of 20,000 ten years ago to one of 70,000 today. A decade ago there was work for anyone who wanted it. Now it's drying up: I saw a mid-sized construction project today up at the hospital with six concrete mixers lining up ready to unload. Remember how even three years ago you'd see a building site with a frantic civil engineer screaming into a mobile phone trying to find his next load of concrete? That's all ending. People will start to leave soon: The English are going already, but can't sell their houses for love nor money, the Eastern Europeans will be next – better to be poor at home than in someone else's country, and a lot of the Pontis will be packing up as well. We're looking at some big changes.”

Some of the lorries and diggers for sale at the building site between the roundabouts. It used to be difficult to buy a lorry, and some of these are quite new. The sign in Greek reads 'Don't look for us, we'll find you!'

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

February Weather

For the last four days, we have seen little sunshine. Saturday was hazy. Sunday, dark and brooding. “Please put the tractoui – the rotivater – through the vegetable patch,” I urged Best Beloved. “I really hope that it will rain, but if it does, I can do no work for at least a week and if the earth isn't turned we'll lose a lot of time on the spring crops.”

On Sunday morning he did the vegetable patch, and we finished pruning the vines and the trees in the field. Then he put the tractor through the field, as well, turning under the newly sprouted weeds that had given the lanes between the trees a soft dusting of green. He did the olive grove, too, and we started pruning the long suckers that have grown from the trunks and branches that we cut back so radically last year.

Usually we start pruning at this time. This year, because of the unseasonably warm winter, we are struggling to finish before the trees blossom, and as I cut the apple branches, sap bled from them. Some of them had started blossoming already – although they are usually a week or two behind the peaches and nectarines which have yet to break into bud. “The weather's going bananas this year, Manamou!” Best Beloved called from his seat on the tractor.

I cut some apple branches to take into the house so that we can have blossom on the table. The almonds are already out, a pink and white veil floating over the hillsides.

On Sunday night, the wind woke me as it screamed around the house. In the morning, it was still blowing – from the east – heavy with dust, and warm. A grey haze covered everything.

The wind blew throughout Monday. In the Middle East, this wind is called the khamsin, and is said to drive people crazy. When I lived in Israel I heard that a man can be forgiven the murder of his wife after seven days of khamsin (but could a woman be forgiven the murder of her husband? I wondered.)

Last night the wind backed and became chilly. I had just snuggled into my down duvet, slightly muzzy from a glass of wine, when it hurled handfuls of huge water drops against the side of the house, and one of the french doors upstairs slammed. A white flash lit the sky, followed at once by an infernal crack of thunder

I pulled on my dressing gown. The hall light snapped on as Alex threw open his door to see what was happening and if I needed help. We raced up to the sitting room and wrestled the blowing door shut, then I opened the front door to check the car windows. Within seconds, my hair was plastered to my head.

Throughout the night the storm woke me intermittently, but I snuggled deeper into the down quilt. I knew that today there would be no work in the field. There will be no work in the field for at least a week: I am free to plan, to order seeds. To buy another fifty metres of twenty-millimetre hose and six sprinklers for the new lines that I will put in when the earth becomes workable again.

In a lull between showers this morning I went out to the back verandah and looked toward the mountains. The air had an edge, the brittle bite of snow. Chains will be needed above Platres for the next week.

The rain is still falling. On our fields and above them. In the hills, into the dam. We need more, much more to see us through the summer without water rationing. But for now this is what we have, and we are grateful.

Friday, February 6, 2009


I love cookbooks. I have a shelf and a half of them and always lookout for more at book sales or in charity shops. It must be an inherited trait: my mother had a good collection, and when I visited my brother in Ireland, I was thrilled to see that he shares my compulsion. “Oh yes,” he said when I mentioned it. “I love cookbooks!”

Some of the attraction must lie in the simple fact that they are books and I love books and words. My house (and my brother's) is filled with books. And some of our cookbooks are full of superlative writing. Maybe luscious illustrations were a reason that I bought some. Others found their way to my shelves because they have recipes that suit my lifestyle and the ingredients that I have available.

But I think that the main reason that I collect cookbooks is because, although food is the vehicle, the idea behind the cooking and sharing of food is that of nurturing and community, the forging of common bonds. The first cookbook that I remember impulse buying was in Waldenbooks in Kahala Mall on a visit home to Hawaii. It was Viana La Place's The Unplugged Kitchen, and the simple way that she conveyed the pleasure that her kitchen, her ingredients, and the associations that working in her kitchen wrought between her modern life in California and her mother's in Italy hooked me.

Who are my favourite authors? Well, Elizabeth David is one. No collection of cookbooks is complete without one of her volumes. She manages to embrace personal and cultural history – as well as passion for ingredients and method – in a single recipe, and reading one of her books is to acquire an education, not just in Italian Food or French Provincial Cooking but in the geography, demography, and society that produced them and the people for whom they are daily fare.

Fast forward to the present, and although I have not read nearly all the celebrity chefs' writings that are so popular today (something – fear of falling short of the mark? – keeps me from How to be a Domestic Goddess, although I really want to read it), I enjoy Jamie Oliver and Nigel Slater because they seem to truly enjoy what they're doing and are genuinely interested in conveying their experience so that other people can enjoy it, too.

Claudia Roden is one of my favourite food writers and her A New Book of Middle Eastern Fare is a volume that I have turned to at least once a week for the last ten years. When Arabesque, A taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon came out in 2005, I bought it at once. Her depth of understanding of the region and its peoples is unparalleled, and her books are full of stories whose characters come to life in a way that brings their food to life, and makes enjoying the dishes all the more intimate because, while preparing or eating them, you remember something of the other people that enjoy them.

But Elizabeth David, Jamie Oliver, and Claudia Roden are all big names. Some of my favourite cookbooks come from lesser-known names or groups of friends who put together a collection of recipes that have a particular significance for them. Gilli Davis spent time in Cyprus and grew to so love and respect Cypriot cuisine that she published The Taste of Cyprus – A Seasonal Look at Cypriot Cooking, and although for most Cypriot recipes I turn to my mother-in-law, I enjoy reading Gilli's experiences as she wanders the same paths that I do. Kopiaste: Cyprus Food, Customs, and Traditions – written by a Cypriot, Amaranth Sitas, but published in English – is full of priceless advice like: 'Incidentally, when you go and buy your olives, don't be talked into buying the large variety... What you need are the medium type of green olives, and nothing else will do. Now, take the olives one by one... No! First find a small stool to sit on – you can't possibly crush all those bending down! And take everything onto your back veranda...'

Four years ago my California brother sent me Palestinian and Jewish Recipes for Peace, a book that celebrated 'twelve years of sustained relationship-building and outreach by the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group of San Mateo County, California'. The frontispiece shows a group of mostly middle-aged friends gathered in a room, above the quotation by Dr Harold Saunders, a former US Assistant Secretary of State and negotiator of the Camp David Accords: “There are some things that only governments can do, such as negotiating binding agreements. But there are some things that only citizens can do, such as changing human relationships.”

The book is about food – the kosher food of European Jews; spicy Arab dishes with a hint of the desert; Levantine food , the pittas and hoummous, tabouleh and felafel loved by both Arab and Israeli. It is also about people and community, compassion, and peace. The recipes are interwoven with stories – of celebrations and holidays and the recipes that accompany them; of families marking rites of passage; of the determination of a small group of individuals to see past stereotypes.

Take cookbooks at face value – flip through one to decide what to make for dinner, how to cope with the glut of eggplant in the garden, or to learn how to test the set of jam. But if you look a little deeper, you find a whole new world, and it's there that I like to dwell. I learn which variety of plum is the best for preserving; how, why, and by whom certain breads are prepared for Easter by Orthodox Christians; how to use every last scrap of a butchered hog; and how a long table and a commonly prepared feast can provide a foundation for understanding.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ode to an MOT

Yesterday I had a poem of a morning – an epic or a sonnet, certainly not a haiku – in taking my car for an MOT, its failing, then my pursuing the means to pass today. One finds god – if god is humanity and joy and humour – in so many places!

Best Beloved tried to pay the car tax the day before yesterday and my little white jalopy was refused because it needed its roadworthiness certificate. So, that day, between collecting Sophia from the swimming pool and going to the bus station office to find out why the bus driver had not picked her up on Saturday, I made an appointment at the garage for yesterday morning at 7.45.

The car failed the emissions test, and “You have to replace the front light and the interior handle of the driver's door.” I drove to the main dealer garage at the industrial estate, where the chief mechanic sucked his teeth at my problem. “To change the catalytic converter will be at least 300 Euro,” he said. “A cheaper temporary option is to use petrol additive. It sometimes works – for a while.”

I drove all the way back across town to order the spare parts. A young man with red hair, a nice smile, and good English looked at my MOT form. “It failed,” he said. “Now you have to fix it – or buy another one.” He looked up the parts that I needed. “The lens will be eighty-seven Euro, the door handle, nineteen.” A catalytic converter, he agreed would be at least three hundred, plus labour... “And the car's not worth that!” The parts could come from Limassol or Nicosia and be here by tomorrow “unless, of course, you can find them in a breaker's yard.”

“Do you know which yard might have them?” I hazarded, seeing my morning disappearing in a procession of broken car lots.

“Iakovis,” he answered. “Diamond, up by the market. Here is the mobile number of his brother, Marios. Tell him that you're looking for a EE101 right-hand lens.”

“But you're not supposed to be telling me this, are you?” I asked. “You're supposed to be selling me a new one...”

He winked. “Call him, and if he doesn't have the parts, call me back. But you should be able to get them for less than half price.”

I called from the car. Marios answered on the second ring. A helpful voice, patient with my less-than-perfect Greek: “Let me have a look... Yes. We have one. The price? Forty-five Euros.”

Back upstairs my red-haired angel said. “Good! It's a shame to spend too much on an old car like that...” and waved away my thanks.

I found Diamond with no trouble and parked on the pavement outside. In the office a youth in a hoodie with a commando cap pulled around his ears sat behind the desk. No, Marios was out right now, could he help me? A shout came from the back: “Is that the lady for the headlight?” and another young man, shaven-head, olive complexion, hazel eyes and the kind of lashes that Mediterranean men take for granted and western women spend a fortune emulating, emerged from behind a pile of engines. “Just a minute, I'll go to the storeroom and get it for you. Have a seat.” He drove off.

I asked the hoodie-youth about the handle. He rummaged for a moment then held one up. “I'll put it in for you.”

Lashes came back with a box. “It won't take a minute...”

“Before you start,” I said. “Marios told me forty-five Euro for the light, but I only have thirty. I live out past the airport and didn't have time to go home and get more money. I can bring it when I'm in town this afternoon.”

“No problem at all,” he asked where I was from and how long I'd been in Cyprus, and finished the job in five minutes. “Marios thought that you needed a whole light – that would be forty-five Euros. You only needed the side part, so it's less. Call it forty-five euros for the handle and the installation, and bring it when you're ready. No rush.”

“What's your name?” he asked, accepting what cash I had. I told him and he said “I'm Petros, this is my brother Benji, and Marios is my brother – and Iacovos, too. We're all in the business! Have a nice day...”

Off I went to the petrol station for some fuel additive. “No, love,” said the owner. “None left. They're going to bring it later today... Ah, wait. Take this.” He handed me a bottle unlike the other bottle I have to use on the van's old engine, and I asked was he sure it was the same stuff and how much did I need, explaining about the MOT and the emissions problem. “If you're three-quarters full, dump the whole lot in, go for the test this afternoon, and you'll be fine. I had another customer with the same problem last week and this worked a treat.”

I looked at the price and pulled out some Euro coins. He waved them away. “Nah, love! It was open, see? Call it a present from me!”

I dumped the whole lot in and went home to breakfast.

If I were young and good-looking, I could cynically ascribe all this helpful benevolence to men's natural inclination to assist a pretty girl. But I'm middle-aged and 'expeditionised' with mousy hair going grey and wrinkles. I guess human nature can be pretty good, after all.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Birthday Feast

Well I can unequivocally say that I don't like eating crocodile. Been there, done that. I only tasted a little, so I don't qualify for the t-shirt. But let's just say that if I see croc on the menu when I'm anything short of starving, I'll pass.

Alex turned fifteen last Monday. He didn't want a party, but hankered for 'something special' so when I mentioned that I had seen exotic meats – including crocodile tail – on the board at Butcher Boy, his eyes lit up. “We could invite Papoose and YiaYia (Grandpa and Grandma) and not tell them what we're eating...”

In the end we decided on a menu of crocodile tail, kangaroo fillet, and wild boar, and I settled down in front of the computer to decide how to cook them. “Roast the hell out of it,” suggested the man at Butcher Boy. “A crocodile tail does a lot of lashing about, so it's going to be stringy and will need a lot of cooking.” But everything on the internet contradicted him, with many a caution 'not to overcook'. The kangaroo was easy: “Treat it like steak....” (“On the barbecue!” said Best Beloved. “With the wild boar.”) At the last moment the lovely Romanian woman in the frozen shop gave me two wood pigeons “For your son's birthday present!” and the instructions of how to cook them: “Cut them in half, fry them, add maybe a cup of stock and a splash or two of white wine, then cover and simmer until they're soft. When they're ready and the liquid is all reduced, add a dash of Worcester Sauce.”

The Grand Folks (informed as to the menu) were invited for seven last night. Alex decided on pan fried crocodile tail with spicy dark sauce and lime risotto. Best Beloved fired up the barbecue, and I started on the salad. Then came a phone call from Sophia who had been spending the afternoon with friends in town: “The bus just drove right past me...” I handed the knife to Best Beloved and ran for the car. Forty minutes later I returned in time to start the risotto and pigeons, to find the table set, the kitchen and sitting room tidy, and Skippy about to go on the grill.

I made the sauce. I braised the pigeons. I stirred the risotto. I put butter in the pan for the croc, let it foam, and added the round, whitish steaks. They looked all right. They smelled a little strange. I cooked them like I would a tuna steak, and everyone gathered around sniffing with strange expressions. “Yucks!” said Zenon. But he says that to everything.

We served it as a starter with a spoonful of risotto and a dribble of dark spicy sauce per plate. “Let Alex try it first!” said Best Beloved. And Alex took a bite. “Not bad,” he said, taking another. Everyone except Zenon tucked in – and all, except me, had the grace to finish.

It tasted like fishy chicken. Or chicken-y fish. No, not my style at all. Even though I liked the sauce – rum, garlic, ginger, chilli, and sugar. And the risotto was wonderful.

My dislike for the croc wasn't based on squeamishness. I would eat snake if it were offered, and guinea pig – though I think I would draw the line at insects. I've eaten frogs and snails, hearts, tripe, haggis, and tongue. I don't like liver, kidney, and brains (my mother forced them on me when I was little, but I hated the taste as a child and still do.) Croc tail just didn't taste nice – and I have the feeling that I wouldn't like it barbecued, stewed, broiled, or any other way.

Then Best Beloved brought out the 'roo and the wild boar. They disappeared in a flash along with the pigeons which (everyone coo-ed)were delicious. But I didn't care for Skippy or Wilbur. Too gamy. And I've never liked pigeon. So I ate a lot of risotto and a fair bit of salad – and of course demolished my share of the cake.

In the morning I put the last piece of fried croc into Stumpy's bowl. He sniffed it. Looked at me. Sniffed it again. Then twitching his tail, he hobbled off. I guess he doesn't get a t-shirt, either.