Saturday, October 31, 2009

Oxi Day in Akamas

The twenty-eighth of October is one of the year’s big holidays. It marks the day, in 1940, when Ioannis Metaxas, the leader of Greece, refused Benito Mussolini’s request that Italian troops occupy Greece to further Axis aims. Italy invaded Greece, Greek soliders repulsed the Italians through the murderous mountain winter of Albania, and the following spring German Panzers subdued the Greeks and began the Occupation that would last until 1945. Oxi Day is a day that the Greeks are justly proud of – and one that many Cypriots celebrate vocally “Hurray for the Patrida!” No wonder Turkish-Cypriots feared that they would be incorporated into a Greater Greece.

But that’s beside the point. For us it’s a day off. Best Beloved planned to stay in Nicosia so that he wouldn’t commute twice, and when I asked the Little Ones what they’d like to do for the day, the answer was unanimous: “A picnic!” Alex said that he could live with that, Sophia had a friend over and we arranged that we would collect Hannah, and I decided that sixteen years had passed since I had seen Avakas Gorge, and that maybe it was time to take my children there.

We loaded the Land Rover with baked chicken, spinach pies, an assortment of fruit, bread, peanut butter, cheese, juice, and water, and set out at 10.30, stopping at Kissonerga to collect Hannah.

How the road to Akamas has changed! When I was first here, it was single lane tarmac after Coral Bay, with only a few houses scattered on either side. Now it is ribbon development: houses, offices, restaurants, kiosks… all the way to the harbour at Agios Giorgios. I almost missed the turn-off for not recognising it.

At the parking lot for the Gorge, I had a little smile to myself. The place was full of safari Land Rovers that were just leaving (thank God!) and as each one passed us, the drivers checked me out. Very few women drive Land Rovers here -- I think I’ve only ever seen one other, and like me, she was a foreigner. I don’t know if these guys felt their masculinity in doubt, but I know that I saw some of them bridle.

“We’re not going for a walk are we, Mum?” Sophia said, looking dubious.

“It’s not far,” I answered. “And there’s no point in your coming and not seeing the gorge. It’s spectacular.”

Some eyes rolled. “But what’s there?” Teens!

But Zeen and Leo were already heading up the track, Alex in their wake, so the girls had no other option but to follow.

A few other people were on the path, and we joined them in reading the names of various trees and shrubs that the forestry department has thoughtfully labelled. The path is much clearer than when I was last here – trees cut back, and steps built into some of the rougher parts. A few stagnant pools of water were in the stream – in true winter, it often becomes a cascade, and I’m sure that I remember Exalt Travel, in the days when David Pearlman owned it, doing some kind of trip down the Gorge with inner tubes.

When the walls narrowed to the point where we could nearly touch them on either side, even the girls were impressed. The boys loved it, scrambling ahead, clambering over boulders, their shouts echoing around us. “A goat!” they cried, pointing to a precipice thirty feet above us, where a goat nibbled on some greenery. And “Look at the pigeon having a shower in the waterfall!”

About half an hour in, the girls elected to turn back, and Alex, saying that he was hungry, went with them. The Littles refused. They insisted on continuing for another hour and a half, so I went with them, sure that the Gorge would open out soon, and we would find our way back down the road like Best Beloved and I had done sixteen years before. Sometimes we followed a trail marked with red paint splodges, sometimes we just stuck to the streambed. There were no other hikers about, and the trees were full of bird song.

But eventually Leo flagged, and a couple that was descending said that it was at least another half hour until the walls ended, so we turned back. I sent Zenon ahead as I was afraid that the others would start to worry as we had been away longer than I had hoped, and he set off at once. I had to help Leo over the steeper bits and give him a hand over some of the bigger rock falls, but he never once complained. I carried him the last 200 metres, and we consoled ourselves with the hope that the others had left us some food.

We needn’t have worried. There was plenty left.

After lunch we drove further into the Akamas. Past Lara Bay where the turtles nest, we found some Hobbit caves and went up to explore them. Some old time shepherds had filled the mouths of naturally weathered limestone hollows with rocks to make simple shelters for their flocks, and we all enjoyed climbing and exploring. “Can we come out here and camp in the summer?” That was Sophia’s question and, yes, she was serious. But “Without an adult, I mean. Just a crowd of us?” I had to say no. Party-pooper!

Rain threatened, so we headed home, stopping at the kiosk by the harbour at Agios Giorgos for an icecream. It was a rip off. But nobody really minded. We had all enjoyed ourselves far too much to let something as insignificant as crappy ice-cream ruin the day.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Evening at the Red Park

These days I do a lot more driving and a lot more hanging around. And not the kind of hanging around where you can just park the car and read: at least twice a week I am hanging around for an hour or more with the Little Ones at dusk while the Big Ones do TaeKwanDo.

Last Tuesday, by the time the Littles’ class had finished and I had dropped off the Big Ones, I had done all the town errands and was a bit at a loss for entertainment. Zenon and Leo were no help. “I’ll just stay in the car,” was Zenon’s contribution, and Leo said “I want pizza!” Neither was an option, so I said: “We’re going to the Red Park!”

A chorus of groans met this suggestion. “Then we’ll have to change out of our TaeKwanDo suits!” and “It’s getting dark, no fun!” But Benevolent, I may be; Dictator, I am. So I said: “Tough! That’s where we’re going. Change your clothes in the car.”

The Red Park is Yerouskippou village’s municipal park. Large and grassy, with landscaped gardens, slopes, paths, and a footbridge, it also has a kiosk/cafeteria (always closed when we are there), playground equipment (painted red, hence our name), benches for sitting, and a water fountain. Before we moved out to the sticks, we used to have Zenon and Leo’s birthday parties there: there were flat places for football, cricket, or games of tag, woods and bushes to hide in, even an amphitheatre for showing off. Its drawback from May to September is a shortage of shade. The trees are still small, so to enjoy Yerouskippou park in the summer, you need to go before nine or after five-thirty.

We found the parking lot nearly full, and Zenon and Leo tumbled from the car – all complaints suddenly silent. At least fifteen families were enjoying the evening at the park: swinging on the swings, climbing the frame, sliding. Two separate games of kickball were happening, and skateboards and bikes whizzed around the concrete area.

The boys headed for the swings, close to a group of three women, two toddlers, and a baby. We exchanged smiles, the gold teeth of the older woman flashing as she looked up at me. One of the toddlers wandered toward the path of Zenon’s swing, so I scooped him up and returned him to his mother, and I realised that the group was speaking Arabic. I hadn’t twigged at first because, although the older woman was dressed ‘ethnically’ the two younger ones were in Western dress. Most of the Syrian women here wear the conservative Muslim head scarf.

Over at the flat area, a Russian mother and her son were playing kick-ball while Babushka watched and called occasional encouragement. Some Ponti kids were playing on the line swing, a Cypriot thirty-something was encouraging his four-year-old daughter up the slide, and an English mother was trying to stop her two sons from braining each other with lightsabres. As I watched them all, I reflected on how the demographics have changed since I first set foot on Cyprus just over nineteen years ago.

The population then was almost purely Greek-Cypriot. A foreigner’s land purchase had to be approved by the Council of Ministers. Some foreigners (mostly English, many former military) had retired here, and some intermarriage, again, mostly with English – or English-speaking foreigners had taken place. Those (mostly) women had assimilated. Before the ‘nineties, you simply couldn’t manage without Greek. Guest workers were Philippinas – nurses, cabaret ‘artistes’, and home-help, but Cypriots, both men and women, still did menial jobs.

Things began changing. Sri Lankans appeared – the women working as housemaids, the men as shepherds, drivers, cleaners. Then came the Russian invasion: as the Soviet Union crumbled, more and more Russians, many of then wealthy, set up businesses and homes here. Syrians came to work on the building sites, and Pontic Greeks arrived to live – their Greek passports assuring them a right of residency. When I helped with ambulance cover at the rugby match, I ran into our Nepalese worker, and he introduced me to Paphos’ Nepali community which lives in a complex of rooms at the rugby pitch. The latest wave of house- and field-help has been from Vietnam, and it still gives me a slight sense of cultural dislocation to see three or four women in their traditional conical hats, squatting in a field of onions or walking in the market place. You can find a Cypriot house-cleaner, baby-sitter, or field worker for neither love nor money.

When we joined the European Union in 2004, Brits arrived en masse. Suddenly, they could work and buy land. Because there were so many of them, and so many British businesses, learning Greek was no longer necessary: they could buy land, build a house and decorate it, shop, give birth, educate their children (privately), and watch t.v all in English. The one thing that they couldn’t do in English was die. The State still deals with death, and formalities are the same whatever the nationality. Doctors and police speak good English, but the bureaucracy is still Byzantine.

Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States joined at the same time. New languages were heard. Leggy blondes appeared on the streets, in cafes, married to locals. In 2006, 26% of marriages that involved a Cypriot in the government-controlled part of the island were to a foreign partner. When Bulgaria and Romania came into the EU two years ago, even more foreigners flooded in. The economic downturn has seen some retreats – particularly of fly-by-night British who thought that they would make a killing here, then were hit by recession and the loss in value of Sterling. But by-and-large there is still a good-sized community of out-of-towners.

Hence the polyglot mixture at the park. This new multi-culturalism can’t be bad: we all have to live on this planet, the better we know each other and the more things that we realise are common, the less likely we are to kill each other. Syrian and Russian children sharing classroom space with English and Cypriot kids will only lead to greater understandings… won’t they? I’m glad that my children will have international friends. Taste foreign food. Learn foreign tongues.

Just now, like last Tuesday evening at the park, the situation seems pretty idyllic. Maybe I’m just naive, but I hope it stays like that.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

At The Olive Mill

Theodora and her crew filled fifteen boxes. Each box holds a little over ten kilos, so I knew that we had around 150 kilos and decided to press them at Anogira. I called the mill and confirmed that I could be the first through the press on Saturday morning. “Be there at nine, sharp!” Andreas said. Although each farmer’s fruit is theoretically kept separate, because ours is certified organic I like to be the first through the press. Being first means that you know, beyond any doubt, that your oil will come from your olives – and although it wouldn’t affect our certification, I like to be able to tell my customers that their oil is 100% certified organic olive oil.

So, leaving Best Beloved to take Leo and Sophia to Drama, I drove up to Anogira with Zenon.

We arrived bang on nine and I backed the Land Rover up to the hopper and Zeen and I started emptying the boxes. We had 168.9 kilos.

Olive pressing takes more than 2 hours. First the leaves are separated out and the olives are washed, then the fruit is crushed by the three giant wheels. After crushing the olives are kneaded in the machine, and the oil is extracted, finally trickling down into our containers.

We hadn’t had breakfast, so Zeen and I decided on a little snack to help the time pass. We chose toasts drizzled with oil and sprinkled with rigani. Mine came with tomato and feta and his was plain. And Zenon was hooked. A normally picky eater, he took one bite and his eyes lit up. “Can I have this at home every day?”

After our snack, we took a walk around the park that forms the museum part of the mill. I would recommend a visit here to anyone who is interested in learning about Cyprus or oil production. Andreas and Lina have created a beautifully landscaped park with attractive and interesting exhibits about the history and cultivation of olives. They have a model ‘old time’ press showing how donkeys were used to turn the screw; they have a collection of tools, utensils, mats, and pots. They have clear multi-lingual explanations.

But I think they’ve gone a little over the top. Where they’ve stuck to olives, everything’s great. Why add the sheep? I guess that you can say that sheep are a part of traditional Cypriot culture. A pony? The poor thing, a skewbald Shetland-cross, was disconsolately cropping coarse straw in his pen, waiting to be saddled and led around under tots all day (2 Euros a pop). I was hot, in shorts and a tank top. God knows how he felt in his woolly coat. Shetlands are bred for the inhospitable rocks of northern Scotland, not the sun-scorched Cypriot lowlands.

But saddest was the deer, in its faux-concrete pen. Young enough to still have spots, she pressed herself, flanks heaving, against the wire as far from us as she could possibly get, and stared with wide, dark brown eyes. When we moved, so did she, gauging her moment and leaping up the concrete rocks on fine-drawn legs to press herself against the other end of the pen. Her eyes never left us. There was nowhere she could hide. We put a Euro in a slot and watched a fan blow detergent foam ‘snow’ across the pen for a minute or so. Deer were here from pre-historic times until the mid-16th Century, but are no longer part of the native fauna. Maybe bringing one and creating an exhibit called ‘Snowfall in Troodos’ at an olive park was simply an exercise in wishful thinking.

By the time we had arrived back at the mill, other farmers had arrived and started their pressing. We sat around, chatted a bit, read some stories, then watched as our oil, bright green, started flowing out of the tap. We had about 27 litres – less than I expected. Less than I had hoped. But acidity at 0.4% puts it well into the Extra Virgin category, and the taste is fresh and peppery.

“Don’t sell it this year, Manamou,” Best Beloved said when I finally got home. “It has cost us 7 Euros a litre to produce this year, and you’ll not make anything on it. Keep it for us.”

Besides, if Zenon stays true to his wish and eats olive oil toast every day (and he has so far), we’ll need every last drop.

Olive Harvest

The olives are done.

The autumn bogeyman that assumes giant proportions every October has been put to bed with barely a whimper, and I’m free!

We have twenty-eight olive trees, and each year – I guess because I’m the main agriculturalist except for the vines and the mango trees – I arrange pickers, usually work as well, then take the olives for pressing. If we have a good quantity (three years ago we had 525 kilos), I take it to the village of Anoyira, about thirty minutes’ drive away, to the Ecological mill where it is cold-pressed by huge stones in the traditional way. Less than 100 kilos (we pruned back some sick trees very heavily last year, and with less watering the harvest was much less), I take to the mill in the neighbouring village of Agia Varvara where they use heat to extract the oil and the processing is much cheaper.

When I arrived back from Scotland on October 5, I did my usual tour around the property – checking to see if there were any mangoes left (there were two), looking to see if the insect traps were working on the guava trees (they were), sussing out the state of my veg patches (they had been well cared for in my absence). And I looked at the olive trees. Shock! The olives were already darkening.

“When are you doing your olives?” I asked my father in law. He shrugged: “End of the month, as usual.” Had I, the foreigner, misjudged the olives so badly, or are they doing what all the other trees seem to be doing these last few years and yielding early?

I consulted Best Beloved. “Do what you think best, Manamou!”

So I called Theodora – the little Russian Greek grandmother from Georgia who is my crew boss and asked her to line up another four workers for last Thursday. “Thursday!” I repeated. “Seven-thirty.”

Last year she diddled me. She had been picking for Best Beloved’s Cousine and we had arranged that she and her crew would come on the Tuesday but they hadn’t finished Cousine’s trees, so she didn’t show up at the rendez-vous point and when I called her that evening swore blind that I had said Wednesday. Last year’s olives were picked by a hodge-podge of Vietnamese and family over a three-day stretch and I’m sure the experience put five years’ worth of white hairs on my head.

But she was there. With another four Russian Greeks. And they had all the trees done by noon and did some work in the garden besides. They are amazing workers, Theodora’s crew; usually they work from 6.30 (I have to get them at 7.30 because of the school run) until 3, providing their own food, for 30 Euro each. They’re not slackers, and they NEVER stop talking their dialect of blended Russian and Greek.

This year I didn’t work. Fired by some Puritan urge or some macha need to get dirty and exhausted in the name of manual work, I usually join the crew raking the olives from the branches down onto the nets spread around the roots, then cleaning out the leaves and tipping the fruit into the boxes. This year I didn’t. I showed them the trees, gave them the tools, and let them get on with the job.

Maybe I’m finally learning something!

Monday, October 19, 2009


There has been a long silence from the Little White Donkey lately. I was in Scotland for ten days at a residential creative writing workshop run by the Arvon Foundation at the Moniack Mhor Writers' Centre not far from Inverness.

When I came back at the beginning of the month, it was to learn that Kay, who has worked for us as a mothers' help for thirteen years, had at last jumped on a plane to Bulgaria to pick up the little boy that she and her husband have adopted. She was on the adoption list for seven years, and it seemed that she would never get the green light. Then last May, she was summoned to Bulgaria to meet the child, and at the end of September received an email saying 'Come and get him!'

So I have been very busy adjusting to what used to be a two-person schedule as far as child-care and driving goes. The Big Ones finish school at a different time from the Littles, so I have managed to work out a car pool with someone else with a child at the Big Ones' school. But after school classes still take my afternoons, and it seems that I wear a chauffeur's cap from two 'til six or later during weekdays. Still, it gives me a better chance to be in touch with what they're all up to, so every cloud has its silver lining. Best Beloved is a great help when he's here, but that's only Thursday's lunch time through Monday's breakfast.

I thought that doing without Kay would be a catastrophe and leave me a nervous wreck. Before she left (on her maternity leave -- I don't know if she will be coming back to work with us when her four months is up), I felt as if I were about to leap of a cliff. Then she was gone, and I had to deal with it all, and nothing was as bad as I feared. OK, there are some tight moments, and some routines have to be adjusted: the children have to do more than they did before -- not a bad thing, at all! But things aren't so stressful, and as I said, I get to engage more with the younger ones -- which can only be good.

My personal time gets cut -- but I was always good at procrastinating anyway, and I now realise how much of that 'personal time' was wasted. There's no time to idly flick through a newspaper now, to linger over morning coffee or afternoon tea. I have all the housework, shopping, cooking, and laundry, deadlines for the weekly food blog that I write, and have started a novel...

... and have just realised that I'm procrastinating now. However, keeping the Little White Donkey going is one of my ambitions, so even if she wanders now and then, or stops to browse, the delay won't be for long. Soon the slender, furry ears will begin to flick again, the nostrils to twitch and wrinkle. Her head will turn back to the trail, and the little flint-like, boxy hoofs will once again feel their way back to the path.