Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Rite of Passage

...I wrote this a few weeks ago...

A few hours before his bath Leo had come to me, put his index finger in his mouth, and rocked his two bottom incisors, eyes snapping. “Are these really gonna come out?”

Later, freshly showered, he and Zenon waited in my bed, for their bedtime story.

“Just keep moving it,” advised Zenon with the wisdom of an older brother, craning his neck to check the progress of the wobbliest of the teeth. “You get double the money from the fairy lady if you pull it out!”

He brought a bandana decorated with flaming skulls and dabbed at his brother’s blood-dappled chin. “Eeew! More blood’s pouring… Does it sting yet? Shall I pull it for you?” His index finger and thumb advanced in anticipation.

“What if they both come out, Mum?”
“Then you get double the money.”
“If he pulls them out?”
“Double again.”

The tooth fairy responsible for our family rewards the pulling of teeth over their natural shedding by doubling the under-pillow offering.

“It’s out! Mum… my tooth… Look!” Leo was incoherent with delight, the bloodstained white bud in his palm.

“Now for the other one,” said Zenon. “Has it started to hurt yet?” Fingers again advanced with the offer of assistance.

Two minutes later, Leo held up the second tooth.

“How much is that? Pulling out two teeth?”

We did the maths together: “If a tooth falling out is a euro-fifty, then two teeth falling are three euros. Double that for pulling, and what do you get?”

“Six euros!” they crowed together.

Unable to contain his excitement at finally becoming a ‘big little kid’ with gaps in his mouth, Leo rushed upstairs to tell his brother and sister.

A few minutes later Sophia came into my room and peered again into her little brother’s mouth.

”Well I wonder if the Old Cow will be on time for Leo,” she said. “Always took her a couple of days to get to me and Alex.” She shot me a shrewd glance from laughing eyes. “And don’t go making excuses saying that the delay is because our particular tooth fairy lives in Australia and has to deal with jet lag and time zones and currency exchange…”


In today’s pre-dawn school ritual, I wake Sophia first.

“Have you any change?” I ask. I have already combed the house and she and Alex are my last hope before trotting out the ‘Our-tooth-fairy’s-name-is-Sheila-and-she-lives-in-Australia’ routine.

Sophia hitches a sardonic eye above the rail of her loft bed.

“Six euros you’re wanting, is it Mum?” she asks. “Check on top of my dresser.”

Friday, December 26, 2008

So, What Did We Do This Year?

Mother Christmas bombed. She – that is, I – lost half the stocking presents. There I was, yesterday evening, searching all possible stash-points for a white plastic bag of about 8 DVD's and coming up empty-handed.

Alex and I stayed up late on Christmas Eve watching Day of the Jackal, and midnight had struck by the time that he and I went down to bed, leaving Sophia still chatting on MSN.

“Don't be too late,” I warned, wondering how late I would have to stay up to outlast her – and deciding to set the alarm clock for 3 a.m.

Best Beloved was already in Dreamland when I went down, but, just as I dropped off, two messages buzzed on his phone. Jerked fully awake, I realised that the house was quiet and thought the time right for my nocturnal deposits.

Zenon and Leo sleep on twin beds that they have pushed together. Puppy-like they sprawl across each other on one or both beds – or down the gap between – indistinguishable lumps of oblivious childhood. I checked the contents of each pillowcase and left the appropriate one on each bed. Alex was also out for the count. But I saw a light under Sophia's door, so I opened it without caution. There she sat, wrapped in scarf and puffy jacket, busily texting. “Yes, Mum?” her smile was beatific. “The red dressing gown's ok, but you know you really should get a beard...” “I saw a light uder your door,” I mumbled. “And just wanted to check that you're ok...” I deposited her sack just outside the door, knowing that Mother Christmas would never be able to climb the narrow ladder to her loft bed, anyway.

At 3.47, squeals and the tearing of paper woke us from sound slumber. I heard Best Beloved's voice down the corridor: “Keep the volume down or Mother Christmas will come back and take everything away again!” Silence ensued until 7.45.

We had to be up by eight, anyway. Ha, my in-laws' Vietnamese helper works for me on her days off and, anxious to score another stash of Euros, was coming to do some cleaning, and I had to get the 8 kilo turkey ready for the oven and start the rest of the food. I had done some the night before, but the lion's share waited.

I went to see the Little Ones. “Mum, I got an 'L' and Leo a 'Z'” Zenon said referring to some pretty carved initials complete with a Lion and a Zebra. “Really?” I murmured, remembering the indistinguishable dark-headed little-boy shapes in the beds last night, and realizing that if the pillowcases had been swapped, Leo would get the complicated geodesic dome kit and a Dragon book that he couldn't read, and Zenon would end up with the more babyish Dinosaur Cook Book and a Gruffalo story. “Maybe your stockings got mixed up. Why don't you swap?”

“Oh no, I want the 'L' so that I can remember Leo when I grow up!”

Alex and Sophia joined us upstairs in the kitchen, Alex in a black Iron Maiden hoodie that Mother Christmas had managed to find somewhere. After Best Beloved decapitated the turkey and I stuffed it with marscapone, garlic, lemon and herbs, seasoned it, tented it in tinfoil, and stuck it in the oven for its three and a half hour soujourn, we did the gift exchanging under the tree.

My haul included some nice sheepskin slippers, a set of super speakers for my PC “So that you can compete with AC-DC” smirked Best Beloved, and some much needed tea towels as well as a voucher for a facial.

The rest of the morning passed in a blurr of peeling potatoes, picking and prepping the beets, carrots, and broccoli, basting the turkey, and putting everything in the oven or on the stove top and the same time. Others took care of the table, and I quickly made a batch of mince pies just in case my First-Attempt-at-a-Christmas-Pudding turned out to be a Total Disaster.

Best Beloved's parents arrived as I was putting the finishing touches to lunch: Alex helped me get the starter – smoked salmon on herb pancakes with sour cream and caper dressing – onto the table, and the meal began.

It was all tasty, everyone – the grown-ups, anyway (Little Ones and Sophia disappeared with “Ugh, I don't like turkey!” and we let them go) enjoyed everything, and the pudding was, if not a hit, a sensation.

“Is that the thing that's been sitting on the shelf in the corner of the larder for the last three months?” asked Best Beloved.

“Three months?” echoed his mother. “Like that?” I explained as best I could in Greek the making of the pud. Doubtful looks were exchanged among the Cypriot contingent, but my in-laws are game for most things that their sons throw them, and if one of their daughters-in-law was going to serve mouse-bait, no-one would accuse them of chickening out.

“Now,” I continued. “We have to pour brandy or something over it and set it alight. I remember my parents doing this when I was small, but I've never actually done it.” The doubtful looks increased and accelerated but a lighter was produced.

“Alex, get the fire extinguisher and stand by,” directed Best Beloved.

It wasn't bad. Gamely my in-laws finished their portions. “Interesting!” they said and “Powerful!” “I'm not sure if I like it, Manamou,” said Best Beloved. “But it's certainly potent...”

And that was Christmas lunch. My in-laws don't linger. They stayed and chatted a little longer, Ha and I cleaned up, Best Beloved went off to sleep (Cypriot male post-prandial prerogative) and everyone else settled down to play with their new toys.

Later, Best Beloved called me over to him on the back verandah. He pointed to the north: “What was the weather forecast the other day?”

“They did say snow,” I replied, following his gaze to the distant mountains.

“It must be as low as Platres,” I said. “They've got a White Christmas up there!”

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas at Our Place

Quite a few overseas friends have asked me how we – our particular hybrid family – celebrate Christmas. It's a mixed affair. Hybrid, like us. We have chosen appealing aspects of each culture and blended them in something that works with – finally – a minimum of fuss.

Neither Best Beloved nor I are into consumption – unless it be of tasty food or good wine. He can party, but I'm no social butterfly, and neither of us does tacky decoration so our Christmas is low key but quality. It was never a big deal in Cyprus anyway: Easter is the Orthodox calendar's big family celebration.

Cyprus was not a rich country when Best Beloved was younger. He recalls Christmas trees from his childhood, but they went up after about the 15th of December. He remembers presents, but they were small gifts bestowed by Agios Vassilis on January 1 (the Saint's Day) rather than delivered down the chimney on the night of the twenty-fourth by Father Christmas/Santa Claus. And Christmas/Agios Vassilis Day merged with another celebration: his parents' anniversary on December 31st.

My childhood Christmases were more developed celebrations. My mother decorated but, eschewing tinsel and plastic, she used glass, greenery, and Scandinavian straw motifs. The Messiah echoed through the house, and the smell of baking filled the kitchen. Although she used to make the Christmas pudding in the late summer, the run up to the 25th saw plenty of other culinary activity – including the naming, stuffing, and roasting of a big-breasted turkey -- usually after some big-breasted film star. My father's specialty was cranberry sauce – raw and flavoured with orange. He would turn out crocks full as my parents used them as gifts. My mother also used to make her own wrapping paper: from blocks of butcher's paper she would make dozens of sheets of hand-printed gift-wrap. One year she used a technique of painting with bubbles blown from a straw. I tried it a few years ago, but ended up with a mess.

Father Christmas left knobbly pillowcases at the end of our beds for us to find at first light on December 25th. Sometimes, he used my mother's winter tights. One year, when I was about 10, he didn't come and the outcry was so intense that he never skipped our house again. My parents also benefitted from his bounty – presumably my older siblings saw to that side of the arrangement.

Fast Forward. Suddenly I'm grown-up... well, I have a husband and a kid (or two...). An opportunity to continue old traditions and create new ones! Except things didn't work out like that. I hadn't reckoned on the pitfalls that beset bi-cultural families – and one of those was that Christmas hardly mattered a damn to Best Beloved. He just couldn't get into the whole stocking thing. Or the present thing “When I see something that I want to give you, Manamou, I give it to you – whatever the time of year... Why should I go out and look for something just to give you a present at Christmas?”… He let me do it, but I felt like I was wading through treacle, and for the first five years of our relationship, I had usually had at least three outbursts of frustrated tears before we arrived at his parents for lunch on Christmas Day.

Christmas in Cyprus was rapidly becoming fake, grafted-on, and commercial. Increasing wealth brought increasing tat, and houses started sprouting electrified plastic Santas. Baubles and tinsel appeared in the shops as early as November, and saccharine carols wafted over the sound systems of supermarkets and department stores. An increasingly frantic message shrilled: “Buy! Buy! Buy!” A religious holiday was morphing into a commercial extravaganza where, if people did not buy presents for colleagues' children, they were afraid of losing Brownie Points. My own children caught the fever young and became increasingly grasping. One of the more distressing aspects of our early Christmases was seeing them given tacky toys that rarely lasted the day – then having to dole out cuddles and sympathy when the wretched things broke.

Slowly Best Beloved and I achieved a balance. I relinquished my hopes of his joining in and he began to participate – unwrapping the presents in his stocking with increasing enthusiasm, and going out and buying – even wrapping! – some on his own. At some point about ten years ago my frustrated tears stopped, his parents began to come to our house for lunch on the twenty-fifth, and I mastered the art of turkey cooking (we go to them for lunch on Agios Vassilis Day and join the whole extended family for a meal and modest gift exchange).

I still struggle with my children's materialism. They see Christmas as a cornucopia of promise, whose reality inevitably disappoints. They generally get a variety of small, funny, useful gifts in their stockings – this year's selection includes marbles, spinning tops, a book about dragons, instructions for a variety of paper aeroplanes, a 'natural facial' kit, slinkies, books acording to age, slippers, a 'Rowan Atkinson Live!' DVD – and one larger present under the tree from Best Beloved and me together. In past years we have given skateboards, bikes, Little Tykes houses: this year's haul includes a compact stereo, some clothing, a nice set of wooden blocks...

We encourage them to put money aside for presents for their siblings which we match or augment, and I push for homemade gifts – drawings, candles, and mosaics have been well-recieved in the past. Flying in the face of a tidal wave of cheap junk: “It's just something for the kids, so it doesn't matter if it's poor quality” is an uphill battle, but one we feel is worth the fight.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Singing in the Rain

The Cypriot state middle schools don't finish until December 23 this year. Lise's son Marcos went this morning dressed for church in his nice uniform. At just before eleven, he borrowed a phone from a classmate and called his mother.

“Can you come and get me?”
“I could barely hear him over the bedlam in the background,” Lise related when I went to pick up something from her house.

On the way back to school from the village church, Marcos and his several hundred schoolmates were caught in a downpour. “You know how it rains here when it really rains,” Marcos added. “We all got soaked to the skin, shoes squelching, everything dripping. Some people managed to shelter in the underpass between the village and the school, but everyone was drenched.”

When they reached the schoolgrounds, the pupils headed for their classrooms, and the teachers to the staffroom or to their cars. The children waited in the unheated rooms, but no teachers appeared. Some were seen driving away. The children, with nothing dry to change into, began to shiver. Soon they started to phone their parents: “Mum, can you come and get me?”

“It doesn't even wind me up anymore,” Lise continued. “I just shake my head in amazement. No wonder parents fresh off the plane coming here to make a new life and putting their kids into school wonder what's hit them – we're talking twelve-to-fourteen-year-olds caught in a deluge and abandoned by the adults who are responsible for them. It's a different life to what they're used to back in England...”

I don't think Marcos will be going to school tomorrow.

So, yes. We finally had some decent rain. It started last night with thunder rumbling in the west, and has continued today with torrents falling from the sky, walnut-sized hailstones that stayed in six-inch drifts for over an hour, and wind that whipped the last remaining leaves from the leaves and hurled branches through the air.

When Alex and I drove home from town at lunchtime, we hit some of the worst driving conditions I have ever encountered with the rain and hail driving almost horizontally at us and visibility down to about twenty metres. I was scared, but I started singing “I'm glad I drive a Land Rover, and not some silly little car...”(thanks, Bing).

Luckily I picked a lot of lettuces early this morning, for sale in the health food shops of Nicosia, because I think that the veggie patch has been largely destroyed.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Party's Over

Sophia turned thirteen on December 2. We usually have parties within days of the birthday, but this year everything consipred to push the date ever-closer toward Christmas, and yesterday was the Big Day.

Planning, Sophia aimed high. “Can I invite friends to a pizza place for a few hours, and then you pick us up.” But “The cost!” I screeched, and on a mellower note: “And what about the family – your parents and the Little Ones?”

“But nobody will come to a party here!” she wailed. “We live miles out, and it's so boring!” Best Beloved suggested that he do a transport run in the Land Rover, and I put on my thinking cap and came up with the idea of a Tea Party complete with crustless sandwiches, scones, and party games. And a few friends to sleep over at the end.

The guest list grew from six to seventeen. Thirteen eventually showed – thankfully no-one needing transport as Best Beloved went off to a Nicosia 'do' of his friends. Tea parties aren't really his thing: souvla is another matter.

In an uncharacteristic burst of organisation, I prepared ahead: spiced carrot cup-cakes, sweet and savoury scones, and the elements of a trifle were all taken care of in the last few days. Lists dominated my activities: 'To Do', 'Shopping' (including the cake), 'Games'. I borrowed cups and saucers, retrieved silver tea spoons and cake forks from deep storage, and Sophia and I prepared towering plates of cut sandwiches – chicken curry and ham – according to instructions on the Web. We hit the deadline : Leo was just giving the floor a final swipe with the mop as the first guest arrived.

The post-mortem reveals that everything went 'swimmingly'. Our first game, Shave the Balloon, flopped. Modern safety razors have minimized the risk of an accidental nick to such an extent that popping the balloons accidentally was impossible -- although the ensuing shaving cream fight proved popular and a skittle eating competition was successful. Food followed: Leo's sausage rolls and most of the sandwiches disappeared. The scones stayed largely untouched.

Mum, how sour is this trifle meant to be?” Alex asked. I tried it – my beloved layers of ladyfingers soaked in sherry and berries, lemon curd folded with marscapone, and whipped cream studded with caramel shards – and indeed it was a little 'tangy'. Fine for me, with my non-sweet sweet tooth, but a little sharp for modern teens. My mother and sister used to make spectacular trifles, but this was my first attempt – concocted from memory and from instructions in this month's BBC Olive Magazine.

Next came a brilliant game: balloon towers. (Divide a group into teams, giving each team about 30 balloons and a couple of rolls of sticky tape, and challenge each team to build the tallest free-standing balloon tower.) Noise and hilarity ensued. Safety razors may not be able to pop ballons, but sticky tape sure can, and inflating and tieing balloons, chasing errant ones, and attempting tower construction while semi-hysterical is some of the best fun I've had in a long time.

The cake followed. Sophia had wanted profiteroles, but New York Sweets had had none, so she had chosen a layered caramel, chocolate, and cream confection. By the time the satiated guests had all descended to the guest room to play Blind Man's Buff in the dark, cars were drawing up in the darkness, and parents calling for their offspring. By six, only the chosen few remained – and the mess in the kitchen.

Clean up was leisurely and surprisingly easy. I drifted between table and dishwasher, larder and fridge, the Big Ones downstairs including the Little Ones in their games until bedtime for the Littles left the others free to come upstairs, watch their movies, munch my (almost inedible attempt at) popcorn and be teenagers.

I went off to bed with a glass of wine, Dr Zhivago, and a sense of lightness and relief. Another hurdle over – now let's tackle Christmas!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Christmas Performance

Last night we went to the Little Ones' school Christmas performance. I had been dreading it. I have sat through so many ranging from marginal to excruciating, that I view their approach with the same distaste that I await dental appointments. Necessary, and to be borne with dignity.

“Do we have to go, Mum?” Sophia preferred to stay on MSN; Alex was busy with a modelling programme. They have sat through their share, too, as well as participating in some.

“Your brothers are performing, and you will support them” (I left the 'and me' unsaid.)

We arrived early at the village community centre, secured second row seats – the first row is always reserved for community leaders and committee members, priests, and other exalted personnel. The masking tape had already relinquished its hold on a felt stocking that decorated the front of the stage and the wreath above sagged precariously. I prepared myself for a repeat of last year – a show so badly organised that the final applause had reflected genuine relief, and that had left Zenon in tumultuous tears because he knew, with unerring childish instinct, that the evening had been an embarrassing shambles.

Almost on time, the curtain opened with a flourish, and revealed the school, all thirty children from Class One to Six, some in Santa hats, some bare-headed, all scrubbed and smiling. They sang three carols: a traditional Greek one, and White Christmas and Santa Claus is Coming – in Greek accompanied by a soundtrack, one student on guitar, and another on bouzouki.

The curtain swooshed closed and the headmaster stood up. A young man, he was appointed to our school last spring in the random manner of the education authority here that moves teachers and administrators around every few years. I had seen him in action a few times: interacting in a firm but respectful manner with even the smallest pupils, appealing to parents for support in school functions and better communication in order to create better morale in the classroom. Now, neatly dressed and barbered, he sprang onto the stage, smiled at the audience, thanked the children, and launched into a speech.

Although he spoke slowly I had difficulty. Formal spoken Greek uses long words and the passive and reflexive voices which are hard for me: by the time I've translated the last sentence, we've moved to another theme. After a few minutes Sophia leaned towards me: “Do you understand, Mum?” I shook my head. “He's saying what you say about the spirit of Christmas being undermined by commercialism, and rather than giving expensive toys as a substitute for love, we should live Christ's message.” She listened intently. “Now he's talking about the kid who was killed in Athens the other day, and saying how sad it was for a young life to be lost because someone misunderstood the frustrations of youth...” (Attacking a police car might not be the best way of venting one's frustrations, but I found it interesting that a headmaster would weave it into his Christmas message.)

Mr Yiorgos kept his speech short and the curtain opened for the lower classes' play. Our school is so small that first and second class are taught together, and Leo beamed at us from stage. Each child said a few lines, did a little act, then the group decorated a tree with baubles that they held, and danced off.

The head of the PTA spoke: short and sweet. Then the older classes had their turn.

These same children whose performance last year had left us cringing had us in hysterics. The fattest boy in the school played a grandmother. In black stockings, a shapeless dress, and a village headscarf, 'she' hobbled onto the stage leaning on a walking stick, one hand on 'her' hip. The audience roared. In rich dialect 'she' berated 'her' husband, daughter-in-law, and grandson, just the way that a village granny would, overseeing the cutting of the New Year cake and tutting at 'her' daughter-in-law for imagined domestic shortcomings. The other actors were good, but granny brought the house down.

The final skit was of another family village Christmas, and again I marvelled at the skill of the children to portray characters that are cliches, but nevertheless true in our village lives. This time a housewife, complete with gestures, muttered imprecations, and fuss, dealt with teenage daughters – one dressed to the nines, the other still in pyjamas at midday; friends with aspirations to sophistication; and a husband who showed up late and wanted to sit around the kitchen table with friends and drink zivania. There were the usual European jokes: “We're Europeans now, so we'll behave the proper European way!” and, from the housewife: “I'm a European woman now, and I have rights!” Then they trooped off-stage to bed and from side entrances and the front door, Kallikanzaroi swarmed onto the stage – Zenon among them.

No elves or dwarves or fairies dwell in Cyprus. Instead we have a variety of mischievous little dark people who live underground, emerging only at night between the Solstice and Epiphany. They can be placated with gifts of sausages and distracted by counting the holes in a colander, but any domestic chaos during the Twelve Days of Christmas is laid at their door. Their particular forte is destroying carefully tidied living rooms, and the fifteen or so who swarmed onto the stage set about their task with relish – leaping onto the table, shaking out the rugs, scattering papers, turning somersaults, and singing before fleeing at 'first light'. The housewife, coming in, surveyed the damage with a chorus of 'Panagia Mou!' s, her husband fell over a chair, then the whole school appeared on stage for their final bows and the heartfelt appreciation of parents, friends, and teachers before the Grande Finale of the raffle.

Last week we went to the raffle at the Big Ones's private school. Prizes included a cruise, a mobile phone, a laptop (won by the ICT teacher), a few meals-for-two, and a range of manicures, cut-and-blow-drys, and Debenhams vouchers. This raffle had a different flavour. Following the awarding of a night at Columbia Beach Resort to some lucky soul, the PTA pres read out the next prize: “Four kilos of fish from Andreas Charalambous!” He named the lucky winner. “Next is another four kilos of fish from Mr Andreas!” Someone else came up to claim it. “Then we have another four kilos of fish from Mr Andreas ...” another lucky recipient. Mr Andreas donated 16 kilos of fish to the school raffle. There were supermarket coupons, two vouchers for twenty Euros worth of fruit from the greengrocer, and other useful sundries. The Esso station on the bypass road donated three sets of two car washes, and my phone number was read out on one of those winning tickets.

When the last prize went home to tumultuous applause, Mr Giorgos leaped onstage again. “I would like to say, for a wonderful evening, thank-you first of all to the children who have worked so hard!” When the clapping died, he went on to thank, individually, teachers both present, and absent through other commitments, the leaders of the two communities whose children attend the school, and the parents for their support.“And I wish you all a safe and Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year!”

We were home by half-past eight.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Welcome to Clementina Street

My friend Mrs Jolley should write a book about her street – at least then she would get something positive from the situation.

When she first moved there, Clementina Street was a quiet neighbourhood in suburban Paphos. It formed the stem of a T, and her stretch of houses was the second group to go up. Two or three households – retired English couples (including Tony, of whom, more later) had already moved in. The cross of the T included Cypriots, returned Cypriots, and mixed marriages rubbing along in a good humoured mix of cars, kids, and camaraderie.

So Mrs Jolley, Stavros (Mrs J's Cypriot partner), and Evelyn (her mother) paid their money, built their house – with the usual traumas and upsets that attend purchase and construction in Cyprus – and moved in.

Co-ordinated complaints by neighbours to the municipality saw the construction garbage cleaned up, and life flowed quietly along. Next door saw its tenants arrive – a pregnant young South African Cypriot called Katrina who argued constantly with her Cypriot fiance, Dinos. Katrina’s mother arrived, at daggers drawn with Dinos, but anxious to see her daughter married. The rows were furious, and while Mum was over from Cape Town, Dinos kept a low profile.

The baby was born. Maria was a cute little thing, but propped in front of the t.v. as soon as she could hold up her tiny head. Dinos appeared from time to time in the middle of the night, turning on the lights (which shone into Mrs J's room) and the rows continued. Marriage followed baby. Screaming matches, mutual swearing and shouting at the baby continued. Katrina tried one job, then another, then lost that when she fell pregnant again.

Meanwhile, building on the street continued. Skeletons went up opposite Mrs Jolley's house, and the plots beside her saw excavation, construction, and eventually the finishing of houses and a bungalow.

“You’ll never guess,” said Mrs Jolley when I saw her one lunch time. “The police came to Tony at weekend.” Apparently Tony liked to sit naked on his porch. An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but when low walls afforded the respectable matrons of Clementina Street a view of all on offer, the law came into play. One of the matrons saw enough too often and called the cops. Tony was warned and has not been seen on his porch since.

“We met the new neighbours,” Mrs Jolley related the following Monday. “The husband is called Nicos and he’s from Stavros’s village. The wife is Hugarian or something. Doesn’t talk much. They have two little boys and he’s putting in a kennel for his four hunting dogs.”

‘The Neighbours from Hell’ she called them as over the next year they completed their house. The woman never spoke, despite repeated overtures, the children were noisy and disobedient, and Nicos continued measuring for a large concrete kennel. “I’m not standing for it,” said Mrs J. “If he thinks he’s going to put a pack of dogs outside my bedroom window he’s got another think coming!” At the municipality a well-spoken young man murmured: “It’s awful, isn’t it? There are hunting dogs next to me. But the lobby is so strong that there’s nothing that I can do. If they become a health hazard from lack of cleaning, we can act. But no legislation says that he cannot keep as many dogs as he wants in his property in a residential neighbourhood.”

The house at the end of the row acquired some surprising topiary. “Whose is that?” I asked, passing one afternoon. “Oh, that’s a gay boy with a hairdressing salon,” Mrs Jolley replied. “He must be trying out new styles on his trees!”

“Karen’s boys got quad bikes over the holidays,” Mrs J announced after Christmas, referring to the young sons of an English neighbour. “Mum’s going spare. They roar up and down, up and down all day and Alf around the corner has said that if they go on his street any more he'll call the police. One fell off the other day and set up a great wailing… It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

The houses opposite were eventually finished after endless altercations with the builders who helped themselves to Mrs Jolley’s water and electricity, and left mountains of rubbish.

“Just look at that lot!” said Mrs J, pointing crushed cardboard boxes and a mountain of smashed tiles. “ The couple of lads that are moving into the first house decided that they didn’t like the tiles they had chosen, ripped ‘em all out, and dumped ‘em in the lay-by. Where are we supposed to turn around now? Their sand pile's here, their broken pallets there, chucked out tiles next…”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Clementina Street is getting another gay couple? A Cypriot gay couple?”

“Looks like it,” she replied. “Two young lads, nice enough looking. Don’t say much but they’re here every day. They’ve already put black tiles around the pool. And what do you think of the colour scheme: mauve and tangerine with the black and stainless steel?

“Going to be a family next to them,” continued Mrs Jolley. “South African, too. Pool's in already. There will be quite a few kids in the street…”

In summer here, people live outdoors. Windows stay open, t.v’s move onto verandas and the evening air is alive with cooking smells, the sounds of children playing, mothers calling… and the barking of dogs.

“Nicos' dog had puppies the other day,” Mrs J said one Monday. “Katrina says there’s six grown dogs and four puppies in the cage now, and someone must walk their dog early on our street to miss the heat because every morning for the past five days the bloody dogs start barking at half past five…”

“What does Nicos do about it?” I asked.

“Well, if he’s there, he goes outside and claps his hands and says ‘Ssshhh!’ and they quiet, but most mornings he’s not there and if Stavros tries they only bark louder.

"And the wife does nothing about it," she continued. "Still doesn’t talk to me despite my having taken her children to the Luna Park with yours that time, and hers coming over to play in our yard. Not a dickey-bird!”

Open windows meant an even closer experience of Katrina’s family life. “That poor little boy!” Mrs Jolley said one lunch time, referring to the newborn that Katrina had brought home a week or two earlier. “He screams all the time. Non-stop.”

“Tell Katrina to stick him on the boob,” I answered with my stock reply to the crying baby problem. It saw me through four children without fail… if they wail, stick a nipple in their mouths, and give them something warm and tasty to suck on and a bit of a cuddle.

“I did, but she doesn’t want to breastfeed,” Mrs J replied. “Some nurse told her that she doesn’t have enough milk, and she thinks she’ll lose her shape. She took the baby to hospital, it was screaming that much, and the doctor said he was allergic to milk and should have soy. So she changed the milk but the baby still cries. And Maria, poor little thing, fell in the pool the other day – luckily fished out by a neighbour… Then Dinos came home at three o’clock in the morning, lights all on – and then they leave them on – then everything’s dead silent ‘til noon when he wakes up, they row, he roars off in the sports car. She stayed at home and screamed at the kids for a while, then bundled them off in the car and disappeared ‘til the middle of the next night. You could make a soap series about that house!”

“Anna?” I suggested, thinking that a session with our friend the child psychologist might do Katrina a world of good.

“I mentioned it,” answered Mrs Jolley. “A while ago. She had an appointment for next week. Then Anna cancelled. Meanwhile, Maria is either shut in the house with the t.v. on, or shunted off to school early and picked up at six. She’s never allowed out, and when she comes over here and runs around the yard or plays with my cat, you can see how delighted she is...”

“They’re not gay boys,” Mrs J reported when the new owners moved in opposite. “It’s the son of the man who owns a flower shop and his English girlfriend. And money’s no object. Apparently they’re living here while they finish another house… You should see the kitchen, and the bathrooms… coloured glass hand basins and all! I heard from the agent that the bath alone cost £4000…”

We began to refer to them as Adam and Eve, and the house as Paradise. Shortly thereafter a panel fence appeared – not wooden like others on the road, but shiny stainless steel. Paradise, in mauve and tangerine, complete with teak decking, black tiles, and a stainless steel fence. Ah well, there’s nowt like folk!

Rose moved onto the street before summer really hit stride. “She has a three-year-old,” reported Mrs Jolley. “Who's frustrated or something, and can only scream.” Rose was from South Africa, too. And her husband was away all the time, too. And every day, all day, Katrina and Rose were at each other’s houses. At least Maria got a breath of fresh air – and during one coffee morning, she fell in the pool again.

“The noise!” moaned Mrs J, haggard one lunchtime. “Children have to play and play can be noisy, fine. We all know that and all accept it. But the screaming… They’re either in Rose’s pool or in Katrina’s and it’s not just shouting and splashing. The boys from next door scream. Screamer and her brother scream, Maria screams, and Tanya's little girl screams…. And now Rose has a dog and it barks, and down the road's Alsatian barks and jumps over the garden fence. Adam and Eve have a Husky that barks. Karen’s dogs bark, Nicos’s dogs bark, Mr Jones’s three bark… We have fifteen dogs and sixteen children under the age of ten in this street, and they are all going full blast!”

I suggested the muchtar. Even if no town ordinances govern the number of dogs on private property, there are rules concerning noise. You can’t run power tools before eight in the morning and are not allowed to play loud music after midnight or through the siesta hours, so there must be a loophole allowing neighbours some respite.

“That’s a good idea,” said Mrs Jolley. “But what’s worse, the aggro of pissed off neighbours, or the noise?

“Stavros complained last night,” she continued. “I was upstairs and a dog fight started outside. The Alsatian started with Rose’s dog and another,and the kids were yelling and Rose and Katrina stood there watching and Stavros went out and said ‘Look! We work, we come home and want to relax in the evening. How can we with this going on?’ And they just shrugged and said ‘What can we do?’ and Stavros said ‘Get some control over your dogs and your children!’ And later I think he said something to Nicos because Nicos made a face at him and put his fingers to his head like horns and waggled them, as if to say ‘You’re becoming a devil!’

“Katrina had the nerve to say to me ‘Your husband’s changed a lot lately!’ the other day. 'He used to be so happy – always smiling and helpful. Now he looks cross all the time!’ ‘Well do you wonder?’ I said back. ‘This street used to be a pleasant quiet street. You can hardly draw a peaceful breath these days.’ I tell you, something’s going to go ‘Pop!’ on Clementina street soon, and I hope it’s not me!”

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cypriot Fusion Soup, or Duck-anas

My Best Beloved decided on roast duck for dinner last night – Saturday, and at about five in the evening, called me over to the table where he was looking through Darina Allen's Ballymaloe Cookery Course.

“What does this mean?” he asked, pointing to the paragraph in the recipe that called for changing roasting pans after an hour's cooking, degreasing the original roaster, and then deglazing it with chicken stock.
“What it says,” was my unsympathetic reply.
“I'm not very good with birds...”
“Shall I do it?” I asked.

We have had previous encounters with ducks. My Mother-in-Law raises them, and from time to time a plucked, eviscerated corpse arrives in a plastic bag on my table. Invariably, despite extended cooking, they have had the consistency of a child's bath toy.

“I'm not very good with birds,” he said again.
“Well, I'll try,” I answered. “But be prepared for another rubber duck.”
“Oh no!” he said. “This one won't be rubber at all. I felt it before I bought it, and knew at once. It's a Dutch duck. Nice and soft. Young.”

So I roasted the duck with honey and garlic and herbs (deglazing the pan with chicken stock en route), and it was good. Nary a hint of bath toy texture.

Sunday lunch is commonly leftovers in our house, eaten – as and when – to fit with different people's schedules and needs. Soup time! I made my stock and took the remaining meat off theduck's carcass, and because the weather has finally turned grey and chilly, turned to the Cypriot winter standby, trachanas.

Trachanas is not unique to Cyprus. The Greeks, Turks, and Arabs all have some version of cracked wheat soaked in sheeps' milk, fermented, then left to dry. The smell used to nauseate me during pregnancy, but the finished product makes an unbeatable comfort food when cooked with chicken stock and pieces into something between a thick soup and a thin, savoury paste.

Best Beloved's auntie has a flock of goats and sheep in a 'mandra' or coral at a nearby village. In true Cypriot fashion, she loads us with bounty when we see her, and from every visit we return with earthenware pots of fresh yoghurt crusty with cream; blocks of soft anari, Cyprus' answer to ricotta; and, in the autumn when she makes it, trachanas – not the crunchy supermarket kind, but the real McCoy, pale gold, crumbly and emanating a fresh-sour smell. It goes straight into the freezer.

So, to the freezer I turned when my stock was ready. Into the saucepan plopped three frozen lumps of trachanas, and half an hour later, lunch was ready: Dutch Duck revisited with a Cypriot winter twist.

Put that in your bowl, and sup it.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Am I Scrooge, or What?

I have nothing against reindeer. They look cute, they're useful – in Lapland, at least. They taste good. But against Rudolph (with his nose so bright), I am rapidly developing an allergy. He was no part of Christmas when I was small: I made it to twelve before hearing his anthem. And successfully avoided him, it seems, until the last ten years or so.

Can one shop these days without hearing the paean to Rudolph ? (yes, but only if you want to hear some equally overdone jingle). Is any decoration truly complete without a glimpse of Rudolph and his shining schnozz? Can we sit through a school Christmas show without Little Darlings crowned with tinsel-decked horns and scarlet noses prancing around the stage telling us in Greek and English about how poor, mocked, downtrodden Rudolph turned his liability into an asset 'one foggy Christmas Eve'?

Spare me! And there are still nearly two weeks until Christmas Day – longer if you celebrate on Agios Vassilis Day – January 1 – rather than December 25

For years I have been threatening an alternative Christmas. I dream of presenting a choral evening with a couple of other singers performing traditional offerings like 'The Coventry Carol', 'I Saw Three Ships', 'The Holly and the Ivy', and a couple of more modern but alternative Christmas songs – John McCutcheon's 'Christmas in the Trenches' about the 1914 Christmas Truce, and Stan Rogers' 'First Christmas Away From Home' that I learned off a Black Family CD. But each year suddenly collapses into December and I realise that once again I have not planned it, organised it, practised the songs, or found a couple of like-minded singers. My son and I will probably satisfy ourselves belting out Eric Bogle's 'Santa Bloody Claus' and be done with it.

While making presents this morning, I got as far as listening to Coope, Boyes, and Simpson's a capella tracks of traditional English Christmas songs on 'A Garland of Carols' and Handel's Messiah. They have inoculated me, for today at least, against the schmaltzy muzak that I'll have to deal with in the supermarket. This year's Christmas is a home-made affair, down to the pud and presents, and while the music played I stuck smashed ceramic tiles onto tomato purée bottles and jam jars, transforming them into mosaic lamp-bases and pencil holders (they sound dire, but they're actually quite nice).

But back to Rudolph... Sally Fallon's fascinating cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, has some wonderful recipes for venison. Maybe if Rudy and his nose irritate me too much this year, I'll marinate him with lemon juice and thyme and put him in a stew.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Winter -- anywhere, anyone?

Yesterday evening, I thought that winter had finally arrived. The temperature fell, the wind rose, leaden clouds scudded -- as far as leaden clouds can scud, anyway. As I crept into bed I heard the pitter-pat of falling drops and I drifted off (aided by a nice glass of wine and a few pages of Doctor Zhivago) certain that at long last we would have some seasonal weather.

In today's pre-dawn, I looked outside. I saw stars above. The dust on the Land Rover showed no more than a random pattern of rivulets. Hoping still against the signs, I began the day.

Beautiful weather... but not winter. Chilly and clear today, blue skies. But not December.

Every year we start heating the house in mid-November. But this year the fires remain unlit; the woodpiles stand mocking.

We usually start pruning the trees in early December when they become dormant and drop their leaves. But this year, the leaves are still green, the sap is still running and the mangoes (which usually flower in April) are in bloom. So are the plumerias -- which should be nothing but skeletons.

Most of our rain falls in November and December. Last month, from an expected fifty-five millimetres, we got nineteen. So far this month has brought hardly any -- to Paphos, at least. A little has fallen in the mountains. But not enough. Not nearly enough. The dams are at the lowest level they have ever been.

What happens when an island runs out of water? When the rain doesn't fall and the snow doesn't lie, the dams don't recharge and the aquifers become contaminated with saltwater? What do the goats drink? How do the trees survive? What happens to agriculture? What happens to the fragile society of a culture that is still primarily rural, despite the last generation's giant leaps into the world of the tourism and services industries?

People will drink and wash and bathe with desalinated water (when the plants are finally built), or the government will arrange more expensive imports from Greece. The tourists will keep coming, and will take their two or three showers a day. Maybe the hoteliers will even apply enough pressure to keep the golf-course green.

I'm being a pessimist, I know. But I look out of the window to another spectacular sunset, see no hint of humidity on the horizon, and pray for stormy weather.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Why the Little White Donkey?

My husband's grandmother, before she departed to the Great Kafeneion Beyond (where, in a reversal of traditional roles, the women get to sit around all day gossiping and playing with worry beads while men do the daily work that matters), said to her grandson: "That land you have with frontage on the main road is a treasure... Set up a coffee-shop there and call it The Little White Donkey. It will become a magnet, and will do well as a business."

We registered the name in her honour, but the building remains unconstructed. Until we lay the foundations, this Virtual Coffee Shop is all that we have. Come in, sit down, order a brew, share a yarn... If you prefer, just flip your beads in the shadows.

Stories surround me up here. A web of them extends through and around my immediate family to the extended family and out into the wider community. Cyprus is experiencing such changes! People flood in from all over Europe -- all over the world. Society is changing, the landscape is changing, the climate is changing. The affects of change touch all of us, cause conflict and upheaval, forge new bonds, create new stories. The stories cry to be shared: they form a collective portrait of our lives today.

And Asproulla? The Cypriot dialect feminine diminutive for White... Besides, there's a ring to it that I like.