Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Alex's Birth Day

WARNING: The following includes a birth story. It's not gross or graphic – it's just a birth story. But some people might not want to read it.

Yesterday was Alex's 15th birthday. Taller than me now, he has feet bigger than his father. But I can still see the baby behind the almost man. And I can still remember his arrival.

I knew nothing about babies. I hadn't even really thought of going to the doctor before Best Beloved suggested it. “Why? I'm not ill...” I had said. “It just might be a good idea” he gently persisted. “Most pregnant women have check-ups.”

I chose a female doctor, reasoning that women understand women better than men do. She had trained in Germany, spoke English with clipped Teutonic tones, and frequently used the word 'Kontrol' when she meant 'Check'. Best Beloved had his doubts. “She seems a little Authoritarian” he said. “But it is your choice.”

I didn't understand what the Big Deal was. Women had been having babies for millenia, hadn't they? The private hospital in Nicosia where Alex was born offered ante-natal classes, and I went to two. They were taught by a woman who had never given birth and who made the whole event seem no more than a mild inconvenience. “When the baybee eez about to be borrn, you may feel a need to poosh,” she said, smiling. “But no eez goood to poosh naow. You muzt wait for when the doctor say you, or maybe you'll have a torn.”

Alex was 'late'. Five days late. “You musst come effery day for Kontrol!” said Doctor I. “Zis musst not go on for too long.” Lamb to the slaughter, I nodded meekly. She was the pro: she must know best. “My husband can be there, can't he?” I asked. She huffed. “Ass long as he doess not get in ze vay!” Finally she said. “Vee must induce!” and before I could ask what that meant, shoved a pessary up me. “Just vait!”

We didn't 'vait' long. An hour or two later I was screeching for pain relief. “Why didn't anyone tell me it would be like this?” I was given Pethedine, but like half the women who have Pethedine, felt little noticable pain relief – just a lot less control. I couldn't walk anymore and had to lie on my back.

The midwife was a Battle Axe. “You don't spik Grik! Huff!” so to be obliging (if-I-make-friends-with-this-woman-maybe-she-will-make-the-pain-go-away) I gasped out “Arhizei!” (“It's starting”) every time a contraction began and “Telionei!” (“It's over!”) every time it finished. Sometimes she had the grace to say “Bravo!”

Finally Dr I came into the room and peered between my legs. “OK, take her in!” she said and I was wheeled into the bright lights of the Delivery Suite (makes it almost sound comfortable, doesn't it?), Best Beloved at my side, seething, though I didn't know it. Then it was feet in stirrups and the snapping of latex gloves followed by the most powerful compulsion to push that I have ever experienced. Terrified does not describe what I felt. No word articulates that fear. Fear is not the word. Fear and pain paralysed me. I was going to 'have a torn'. I was being split in two... And then Doctor I said “No, you must not push now!” How could I not? I was in the grip of something incalculable, unbearable, beyond anything that I had ever experienced or dreamed of. My eyes sought Best Beloved's. At least he was still there. His grip became my lifeline.

I heard the metallic clink of instruments, then, unbelievably a whitehot slice as she cut me open “So zat ze baby vill haff more room to come out... See he had ze cord around his neck...” Everything suddenly happened very fast, but all I felt was a slithery thing between my legs and the unbearable scissor-cut. Then Doctor I wrapped the cord around her right hand, braced the other against something and began to pull the placenta out. "Ha! Yess. Ve haff it all here!"

Something blue was carried over to the sink. I heard a thin wail. Was that mine? Doctor I started prodding around her scissor-slash and I felt the stab of a needle. I screeched – far louder than the blue thing in the sink. “Now, keep still. I must sew you up but zis vill not hurt!” But it did and I asked for anaesthetic. She huffed again. Jabbed in a needle. Waited half a minute and began to sew again. A stitch later and I screeched again. “I cannot give you more anaesthetic!” she said, and sewed on regardless. Eight stitches.

Someone brought me the blue thing. He was wrapped in a white blanket and looked up at me through milky eyes from an elongated face. No hair. No brows.

“Now what do I do?” I thought.

I began to get to know him over the next few days in the clinic. He stayed in the nursery: the only child there. I could hear him crying between the times that the nurses brought him to me for feeds, but was told that going to him would spoil him. I was shocked and shaky and dizzy when I stood up.

After three days, I took him home. But I couldn't keep to the schedule of a breast-feed every four hours and chamomile tea between. I became nervy and sad, snapping at Best Beloved and insisting that he take the baby away when he cried as I couldn't bear to hear him and had been told not to nurse him. After a week I asked my GP, a Scots woman with a sensible attitude to everything. “Och don't be listenin' to that crowd! When he cries, pick him up and stick a tit in his mouth. Give him a cuddle, sit there and relax with him... Fancy that! Telling a new mother with her first bairn to leave him alone when he cries and just give him chamomile tea...”

When I followed her advice, life became less stressful. Breastfeeding was not common here then – without Dr Cecilia I would have given up. No one told me how to do it and the hospital suggested formula when I said that it hurt. Because nursing is not done by my generation in Cyprus, I had no idea if it was acceptable, and Best Beloved said “Just do it anyway!” so I did. The reaction surprised me. Cypriots of all ages were supportive. Old men and women smiled, several coming up to confide “I wish that my daughter had nursed. It's so much better for the baby...” “My daughter in law tried, but couldn't do it and the hospital said that bottles were easier and that she would lose her figure...” Younger people also commented: “I wish I could have breastfed, but it hurt too much!” “I tried to get my wife to do it but the nurse said that she didn't have milk...” “No one told me how...”

When I had some equilibrium, two weeks or so after the birth, I asked Best Beloved how he thought it had gone. “Well, I didn't want to say it, but I thought that the whole thing was awful,” he replied. “They didn't treat you as a person at all, they processed you...” he told me about his daughter's birth in London, three years before, about the midwives' compassion and the doctor's respect. “... And that was in a busy NHS hospital with all sorts of other things going on at the same time,” he continued. “Doctors think they're god here,” he said. “But there was nothing I could do at the time but be there for you.”

Alex's birth and the lack of breastfeeding support made me realise that although women had been giving birth for millenia, there was a lot of room in Cyprus for improvement. Slowly I met other mothers who thought like me. A Canadian friend introduced me to Mothering Magazine, and fifteen years later, I still subscribe.

Things have improved a little in Cyprus – husbands are more welcome in delivery rooms, and a few determined women offer breastfeeding counselling. Induction for babies a week 'late' is still routine, Caesarian sections make up about 40% of births and episiotomies occur in close to 100%. Except with a few doctors, informed consent goes out of the window with the first contraction. I had a bad experience with Sophia's birth, as well, but the male doctor who attended both Zenon's and Leo's births agreed to keep interventions to an absolute minimum and kept his word. (He was even willing to consider a breech delivery for Leo, and after a relaxed and easy – everything's relative – birth with my best friend and then-six-year-old Sophia in attendence, said 'Shall we do the next one at home, then?'. But that's another story.)

All the memories of that day fifteen years ago came pouring back as I watched Alex blow out the candles on his cake yesterday. The pain, the bewilderment, the blue thing wailing in the sink, the loss of trust. Alex's birth and its aftermath changed me not just in that I became a parent.

I realised that even people whom I had assumed were on my side might not really have my best interests at heart, that there's more than one way to do everything. And that nature really is a wonderful designer.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Nothing Happens by Accident

Serendipidy... synchronicity... I found them this morning in a wonderful clash of coincidences that make me understand, yet again, that nothing happens by chance.

I have finished Amira Hass's remarkable book Drinking the Sea at Gaza, and moved on to something that I picked up on the way home from a UK writers' workshop last November – Raja Shehadeh's Palestinian Walks. The author's name rang a bell there, among the stacks and bright lights of Gatwick's departures terminal. Twenty years ago his Samed: Journal of a West Bank Palestinian had opened my eyes to the realities of the Occupation, and when I had been in Jerusalem I had tried to find him but met only blank looks. It had been the height of the First Intifada and perhaps I was asking the wrong people.

So last night, Shehadeh mesmerised me again – this time with the intricate descriptions of his native hills and the way that he weaves observation with commentary with culture with history – that of his family and that of his people. This morning, after doing the housework, I Googled him.

The third hit brought me to a blog on walking – a particular passion of mine (I cherish a dream of future long-distance walks). Linda Cracknell's 'Walking and Writing' details her reflections during a major project of 'recounting walks which follow human resonances in wild landscapes' and on January 11 of last year, she discussed the bittersweet quality of Shehadeh's work and the links – that most of us take for granted – of walking the land, belonging to it, and its belonging to us.

Her words struck a spark and I followed links to her main blog. Joy! Another discovery. Blogging can be beautiful. In an October 2008 entry, she writes about the Wigtown Book Festival and her enjoyment of Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence. And there, on the right … another link 'How did I get here?' I feel like a dog, released from a house-bound day, running on wild land – dashing, darting, nose down, tail waving... Which links do I follow? What shall I read first?

I worked my way through them slowly, blessing Friday mornings when Best Beloved does the school run and I have more time in the mornings. Sara Maitland's book looked too wonderful to miss – so I went to Amazon and ordered it. And in a fit of extravagance also ordered Notes From Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin.

Back on Linda Cracknell's main page, I clicked on 'How Did I Get Here?' and it took me to the literaturetraining site. What a feast! I read about how a number of writers became writers, then passed on to one of their links – the National Association of Writers in Education which, as its name suggests, supports 'the development of creative writing of all genres and in all education and community settings throughout the UK'. I had to join. I had seen one of their brochures when I was at the UK workshop, and had thought that it looked good. Their website explodes with creative possibilities – for students, for teachers, for writers, for anyone interested in using writing in education.

Linda's 'How Did I Get Here?' PDF finished with a list of addresses. One of them was for the
Open College of the Arts which offers tutored on-line courses for beginners and advanced writers. I clicked on their link, and then on the course that most interested me, I-Lines. Its course material is written by Sara Maitland, whose book I have just ordered...

So from enjoying Raja Shehadeh's rambles in the hills above Ramallah, I have come on a full, thrilling circle myself to the point of considering committing to a year's course that might get me out of the frozen-feeling rut that I'm in with writing. What a marvellous way to spend Friday!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Snake George

Snake George has been forced to close. I didn't know until just now, when I opened yesterday's on-line Cyprus Mail.

For as long as I've lived here – thirteen years – one of our favourite visits has been out to the snake park at Agios Giorgos. We haven't been for a while: the drive now takes an hour, and the children are bigger. But knowing he was out there: a fun, educational excursion, close to good picnic spots, near nice beaches – was a kind of security blanket, an answer to the Sunday morning 'What shall we do today?' as well as a bulwark against the creeping environmental disaster that is happening in Pegia/Akamas.

George (Hans-Jorg Wiedl) originally came to Cyprus with the Austrian Battalion of the United Nations Interim Force in Cyprus during the 1970's. He liked the place – liked the people, liked the nature. When his stint in the army finished, he came back here and married. Horrified by the way that the local population misunderstood and persecuted snakes, he decided to act. On land leased near Pegia Village, he established his Snake Park in 1996, digging deep into his own pockets to build pits and pens, sheltered viewing platforms and a display area. With a mission to educate Cypriots – particularly young ones – as to snakes' environmental role, he travelled to open days and exhibitions with a static display and a couple of black snakes that he would pass around. I have some lovely pictures (not digital, unfortunately) of my children and others handling his reptiles and listening, rapt, as he spoke of his charges.

George wrote a colourful, beautifully illustrated book that was published in English/Greek and English/Turkish. It's sold island wide and even abroad. He produced an educational poster that hangs in schools, governmental offices, shops – I got ours when I met him in the Moufflon Bookshop about six years ago when he was delivering them. He thrust one into my hand: “Here, take this. It's bent at the corner a little, but that's ok...” It hung on our wall for years until too many moves battered it too often and we retired it. I don't suppose I can find another one, now.

But his lease ran out – three years ago. And although his landlord generously granted a three-year extension, the land is now due for development.

George can't find another spot for his park. In a recent interview with the Cyprus Mail he said “For the last three years, I’ve been trying to find a suitable piece of land, but all I get are empty promises. First it was the land opposite the park, then in Peyia, Tala and Yeroskipou. Promises are made, and then at the last moment, nothing happens.” Land was available near the monastery of Agios Neophytos, and it appeared that the park was saved. Then the muchtar showed up with a petition from 1500 villagers saying that they didn't want the park there – they were afraid that the snakes might escape.

Well, the hundred and fifty snakes that were in the park in Agios Giorgos – rescue snakes, and snakes collected from peoples' gardens (who is there to call now, when you come home and find a viper stretched across your threshold or comatose beside the pool?) – have been released into the wild. “It broke my heart,” George told the Mail. “But conditions were right and the weather was warm. I just hope they have a chance to survive.” George only kept his small collection of hibernating grass snakes – a species believed extinct for forty years until he proved that a few still existed and began a breeding programme to re-establish them.

The owner of a boatyard in Polis has donated one thousand square metres to George for display and exhibitions – but no live reptiles – so the future is not entirely black, and George, now 65, has vowed to continue looking for a place for his park. Perhaps the government or the EU will step in with funding: George is well-known island-wide, and his park appears in many European guide books. As well as an environmental asset, it was a popular tourist attraction.

In the meantime, I, like many parents, am left with memories. Of eight-year-old Sophia's face as a black snake, tongue flicking, curled around her neck and down her arm. Of children pointing, thrilled, craning for a better look at a coin snake on his branch. Of Zenon, from his perch on my back, accidentally flicking my glasses down into a pit where vipers were closing in on a couple of terrified rats: “Will the snakes eat your glasses now, Mummy?” (George, muttering about how vipers should not be disturbed when they're feeding, climbed down a ladder, waded among the snakes – Cyprus' only poisonous variety – and retrieved them for me).

Fight on George. We'll help if we can. I can't help thinking of the lines from Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi: 'Don't it always seem to go/ You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone'. We can't afford to lose you...


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Saturday's Work

Reading poetry and planting carrots: one is almost impossible to do too slowly; the other, equally hard to do thinly enough.

Someone asked me to read a Judith Wright poem recently at a group reading. She thought that my faintly Australian (it can be augmented for a Paul Hogan effect) accent would be more appropriate in reading an Australian poet's work than her faintly German one. We stepped aside into an empty room to practise: I breathed and thought “Slow, s-l-o-w”, reading until I felt like a 45 being played as an LP. From the corner of my eye I saw her raising her hand and lowering it: “Slower,” she was signalling. “Slower!”.

“That was fine,” she said as I finished. “Just a little too fast...”

Every autumn and every spring when I thin the carrot bed and pull out literally hundreds of pale orange matchsticks, the the smell of carrot clinging to them with the fine clumps of moist earth, I reflect that each one wasted could have grown into a carrot in its own right, and I remember the old advice to mix carrot seed with a handful of sand and sow much thinner that you imagine the seeds need to be. Each year I ignore the advice, figuring that I'll do it right this time... and I never do.

So yesterday Alex and I went down to prepare the lower veg patch in the field for a massive planting of carrots... (I am tired of planting a range of crops for the health food shops that buy from me. Inevitably I end up with an excess of something that someone asked for and then refused to take. At the moment I have about thirty each surplus white cabbages, red cabbages, and cauliflowers – none of which we really like – and I'm giving them away. So my strategy is changing: carrots always sell, and if we have extra the kids inhale them, I make carrot cake, and we're happy. Garlic always sells. So do cucumbers. So this year those are my three crops, and the fickle public can whistle for the coriander, rocket, fancy lettuce, and chard that they sometimes clamour for and sometimes reject out of hand. I've planted enough for us and a little extra for friends and private customers, and the rest can go hang. I've busted my ass for faceless people for long enough...)

Where was I... raving? Yes. But I should have been thinking about the carrots. That is part of my goal of living mindfully rather than wasting my energy on what doesn't really matter.

Alex and I went down to lay the hose, prepare the sprinklers and plant the carrots, and as we were sorting out the hose I realised that there was much more work than I thought because Best Beloved and his brother had started an agricultural project and taken away all the taps that blocked the hose lines that I wouldn't be using, and the reason that there was no water pressure in the carrot sprinklers was thanks to all the water pouring out of the holes that were missing their taps...

So shouting to Alex to turn off the water, I started putting on the taps. When I came to the third one, I paused. Protruding from the ten-milimetre hole in the pipe was the bent-double mid-section of a small lizard, the water flowing out around it. When I lifted the hose and the water stopped , I touched the lizard's belly and it moved. He or she was still alive. I gently tried to remove it, but no dice. The poor thing must have been running along inside the pipe when Alex turned the water on and the pressure forced it half way out of the hole.

I put the taps on the other holes, then called my son to help. I am not particularly squeamish, and I don't like passing on to other people what I can't face myself, but I didn't think that I could dismember this lizard. I showed Alex the pitiful little belly, no longer heaving at my feather touch, and said: “It's dead now, but I really don't think I can face pulling this out, can you do it?” He plucked a stick a little thicker than a straw, eased it under the lizard, and gently pulled. I didn't watch. I couldn't bear the thought of that creamy skin splitting and guts pouring out. “Hey!” I heard. “Look at this – it's still alive!”

A drunken-looking alizavra plopped onto the earth and staggered to the shelter of a large clod. Alex and I knelt and he gently moved the earth. “I think its leg's broken... no, no, look it's fine!” None the worse, the lizard bolted for more cover – under my boot. I lifted my foot carefully and ushered him to the compost heap.

So the carrots went unplanted yesterday. By the time we had sorted out the hose and the taps, rescued the lizard, fixed the sprinklers, adjusted the pressure and decided where the beds would be, teatime was nigh. Tomorrow I shall mix each palm of seed with an equal quantity of sand, mark my trenches, and sprinkle – more thinly than I believe necessary – for the harvest in May.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

We Live With A Three-Legged Cat

We live with a three-legged cat. He has been with us for three years, since his mother produced him and his three siblings in the yard of our old house one steamy July day.

They lived outside. Best Beloved forbade me to buy food for them, as: “Cats worth their salt hunt”. The kittens nursed, and Rhea, their mother, tried to teach them survival. One afternoon I sat on the front steps watching ‘Hunting 101’: Rhea caught a lizard. Presenting it to her offspring with an air of “Exhibit A: Lizard. Watch: This is how you catch it…”, she dropped it from her mouth, then neatly cornered it. Seeming to say to the kittens: “Now let me see you try!” she dropped the lizard in front of them.

None moved. They watched indifferently as their training aid and prospective dinner legged it over the flagstones. Rhea cornered the hapless reptile again and returned it to her children. Their disinterest palpable, she gulped the lizard down and stalked away. I could almost hear her “Kittens these days!”

I supplemented their food as the days grew cooler. The kittens would jump onto the kitchen windowsill, crying for breakfast, then circle my feet frantically as I ventured out the back door. On a practical level, they were pests; on an emotional level, I couldn’t see hungry animals on my patch. Best Beloved muttered but acquiesced.

…until Rhea became pregnant again. “We are not hosting a tribe of cats! Chose one of the male kittens, my mother wants the female, and the rest have to go.”

In the end, we kept two males. A tabby, because he still limped from an injury, and his little black brother because “Black cats get put down at the shelter. No one wants them because they’re bad luck,” Sophia informed me.

We called the tabby ‘Cocktail'. Some of the children wanted ‘Sooty’ for the other one, but Leo held out for ‘Lips’. “Lips?” Sophia said. “You can’t call a cat ‘Lips’!” “Why not ‘Sooty Lips’?” asked someone else. ‘Sooty Lips’ he became.

They played together, groomed each other, fought viciously, and slept tangled in a mass of whiskers, legs and tails. Better than television for entertainment, they were always good for companionship. Best Beloved didn’t like them in the house, but they often found their way in and would curl together on the sofa or in my lap when I worked at my desk.

Around their first birthday, Cocktail came home one Sunday evening with a hugely swollen front paw. The next morning, I took him to the nearest vet. “I can do nothing while it’s like that,” he said. “Give him these antibiotics and bring him back in five days.” But the swelling didn’t go down and two days later I took him to Ina, the Russian vet whose practice was a half-hour away. “Snake bite!” she said at once. “A dog will usually die. A cat can better metabolise the poison.” She gave him the antidote and me instructions for care, and I took Cocktail home.

Daily I bathed Cocktail’s paw, and at first he improved. Then I came down one morning to find him listless, dirty, and very hot. He spent the next week in hospital.

“I think we can save the foot,” Ina said, handing me a bottle of her special saline solution mixed with healing herbs and aloe vera. “I have operated to remove the rotting tissue and there is still some blood supply. He may lose more of the flesh, down to the bone, but it should regenerate if we can keep it clean.” The fur and skin were all gone, the raw flesh showed pink and red. But the wound didn’t seem to hurt him, and several times every day I soaked a pad and bathed it. To no avail. Five days later hospital I had a very sick kitty.

This time Ina shook her head. “The leg will have to come off or the infection will kill him,” she said. “Pick him up tomorrow after lunch.” She asked if I wanted him castrated at the same time. “With three legs he will be unable to defend himself properly and other toms will pick on him.”

But I thought that waking up minus a leg would be traumatic enough – to lose his balls as well might be too disorienting. Besides, I wanted Sophia to make the decision. He was her cat, and she needed to think it over.

When I arrived at the surgery the following afternoon, Cocktail’s leg was gone from the shoulder. “I took it from the top,” Ina said. “Otherwise he'll keep trying to use it and the stump never heals.” Six black stitches closed the wound. “Keep bathing it,” she advised. “And bring him in a week from now…”

A friend was a Reiki master came every other day and sat on the kitchen floor with Cocktail in her lap. He relaxed there more than anywhere else, but was deteriorating again when I took him to Ina’s town surgery a week later.

She was scathing. “I give you a cat well on his way to recovery and you bring him back with an infection again! He has broken his stitches and is very sick!” I held him while she removed the old stitches and cleaned the wound. He cried and tried to struggle, but was too weak.

The Reiki and bathing continued, and a week later he was eating normally and went outside. The first time that I saw him playing and fighting with Sooty Lips, I knew that we had him back.

Despite his loss, Cocktail neither asked nor gave quarter with his brother. The fights and games continued as before. “Stumpy’s better then, is he?” asked Best Beloved the first time he saw them playing again. And ‘Stumpy’ he remained, despite occasional attempts by the children to revert to his previous moniker.

Sophia decided to get both cats ‘fixed’, so after Stumpy had completely recovered from his first surgery, he was back on the table.

Slightly less than a year later, we moved. All furniture, bags, children, clothes, toys, and pictures had made the 10 kilometre hop from our rented house to our new home. The goldfish and the cats were on the final trip.

Sooty Lips shadowed us in the new place but Stumpy disappeared for three days, returning hungry and covered in burrs and grass seeds.

One hot summer day Best Beloved took two big tuna steaks out of the freezer and put them under a cloth on the kitchen counter. In the evening, he opened a bottle of crisp white wine: “How about cooking those steaks now?” I picked up the cloth, still neatly covering the plate. "Two pieces of tuna were there, darling?" I asked. "One's gone walkabout!"

We didn't have to look far for the culprit. Sooty Lips slumbered flat on his side in the late evening sunlight, his belly distended like a python's after devouring a deer. Despite the loss of his dinner, Best Beloved only laughed: " I can appreciate this, the perfect crime!"

The tuna was one of his last meals. Sophia and I came up one morning and found him dead on the floor. I think that he had caught and partly eaten a poisoned rat. We buried him facing the sunrise, sang to him, and put flowers on the massive rock with which we marked his grave. Stumpy stopped eating unless fed by hand. He cried irrationally, bleakly. He quartered the house for days, looking in every room.

Last New Year, my brother in law visited. Driving his car down to the
motorway early one afternoon, he heard miaowing. Reaching the motorway at a weigh station, he stopped and opened the bonnet. Out jumped Stumpy. Terrified but unhurt, he fled to a concrete pipe that led under the slip road. By the time we got the news, night had fallen. Alex, just fourteen, and I got in the car. “Just don’t do anything stupid like go out on the motorway on foot,” Best Beloved said.

We found the pipe. It was about sixty centimetres across. Alex shone his mini-torch inside. “Catscatscatscats!” we called, using the high-pitched cry with which I summon Stumpy for dinner, and we heard his answering miaows. "He's here, Mum!" the excitement and relief in Alex’s voice as bright as the mini-mag’s beam.

As I dropped to my knees to enter the pipe, Alex touched my arm. "Let me go in,” he said. “ I'm smaller." So he crawled on hands and knees into the muck. But the terrified cat gave Alex the slip and bolted around him to another tunnel, this one heading under the motorway with cars thundering overhead. Alex went in to that pipe, too, but the torch was fading. He disappeared around a bend, keeping voice contact as I worried about other tunnels branching off or drains dropping down, seeing my son and our cat lost forever in a sub-motorway labyrinth.

Then I heard: "Got him!" and after an eternity Alex crawled out backwards and handed me the struggling mud-plastered cat.

He doesn’t sit in conventional cat places – comfortable places. He seeks security – under a bed rather than on it; on the top shelf above the garage workbench, his head in the corner, tail dangling; on the high top of Alex’s cupboard – behind the stuffed dragon; across the sill of an open window – head and front paws outside in the breeze, tail and hind legs hanging into the room; behind the monitor of my computer – rolled against the wall with his hind legs splayed open.

Independent, he gives his affection with genuine spirit rather than in the hope of material gain, and it is to Alex and me that he gives it most often. He strolls up in the evening and climbs onto my lap for his ration of ‘lurve’. Glassy-eyed, he lets his tongue loll, and his whole body relax as I massage his tummy.

He still disappears for a day or two at a time, returning burr-covered and sometimes with bite marks. I have seen him run off other cats that threaten his territory: fluffed up to twice his normal size, he deploys his voice to good effect, and hobbles ferociously at the intruder. So fierce can he be that I doubted his complete castration, and when my mother-in-law’s cat had kittens, I found myself giving their legs a quick count… before I remembered that amputation is not hereditary.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

On Stone Floors

I spent two mornings last week on my hands and knees first scrubbing, then waxing thirty-five square metres of stone-flagged floor. (Are those mutters of 'masochist' that I hear?)

The task took me right back to Ireland. At eighteen I moved to Galway. I worked five days a week looking after thirteen horses and teaching riding out at Claregalway, and one day a week cleaning the stable owner's mother's house.

The journey from Salthill – where I lived in a caravan – to Claregalway was long and complicated. I would get up at six, cycle about five miles through town and up the hill to the last house on the Claregalway road, leave the bike in the yard, and hitch the next six miles, walking the last half mile of boreen to the stable. I was paid by the day, so if I couldn't get a lift (unusual) I would cycle the whole way. In the evening, I did the journey in reverse, getting home by about six.

Summer weather made the trip pleasant, but winter's dark, pouring rain, or the westerlies that howled up Galway Bay could turn it into a nightmare.

The stable work was easy. Take out dirty shavings, put in clean. Feed, water, hay, exercise. In the afternoon do the same, less the exercise. Teach a few classes in between.

Working in the house was another story.

Attracta, the mother of the girl who owned the stables, came from somewhere in Antrim and spoke with an accent as broad, heavy, and cutting as a battle-axe. Her voice stood at odds with her fairy figure and delicate golden curls. She ran the house like a military operation. My Mother-in-Law has nothing on her.

On my first day I started in the kitchen. I had washed the dishes, cleaned the hob and all the surfaces, done the windows, swept the terracotta tiles, and had just started to mop when I heard the tapping of her stillettos and she came in to check my progress.

“What are y'doin' wuth a mop in yer hand?” Wasn't it obvious? “Doin' th' floor that way might be guid enough fer the horses, but it won't do fer the people in this family! Did y' no' see the scrubbing brush and the floor cloth in the pantry?”

I had. And I had wondered what they were for. But in response to her single raised eyebrow and laser glance, I went to collect them.

“No, no! Not like that!” she tutted in frustration at my ineffectual dabs and scratches. Then kicked off her stillettos, hitched up her tight navy skirt, and got down on her hands and knees beside me. “This is how y' scrub a floor... and this,” she demonstrated, doubling the heavy floor cloth, doubling it again, twisting it, then rotating her hands in opposite directions, is how y' wring out a cloth!

“Got it? Good!”

She watched me like a hawk for the next forty minutes as I worked my way across the tiles of the kitchen, pantry, and mud room before eventually conceeding with a sniff and a nod: “You'll do!”

My thoughts turned to Attracta often last week. More than two decades may have passed, but my body and hands remembered her lessons.

'But why scrub a stone floor these days?' I hear whispered questions from the more sensible, practical housewives in the audience. “Because nothing else works quite as well,” is the honest answer.

We have a beautiful floor. When we built the Mud Mansion, I had wanted a floor like the one in the old Turkish-Cypriot house that we rent in the hope that if a settlement to the Cyprus Problem re-inforces the status quo with respect to land holdings, our keeping it will off-set, to some extent, the family's property losses in the North. That house, almost a ruin, has a white concrete floor that was stained with yellow ochre, then finished like satin, giving it a mottled, honey-coloured sheen. My father's floor in Hawaii had also been white concrete, its expanse broken by lines of bricks.

But no-one in Cyprus knows how to do old-style concrete floors any more, and after several abortive experiments, we opted for stone.

Our favourite tiles were Cypriot, quarried near the town of Kalavassos. Off-white to pink, with tiny flashes of quartz, they were lightly veined with grey, and at £17 per square metre, seemed like a good deal. But when we placed an order, we found that they became inexplicably unavailable. The same shop had similar stones from Syria: at £12 per square metre, they were cheaper, almost as nice... and available. A team of Russian Greeks laid them, a team of Bangladeshis grouted them – with limited success, and spilled oily crumbs from their cheese pies, setting off a search for a non-toxic sealant.

We decided on wax.

Well, as anyone who has seen The Karate Kid knows: “Wax on, wax off!” The wax goes on and is polished, but sooner or later wears off, and has to be renewed. And the time had come.

Best Beloved did a section two weeks ago, and the effects of his cleaning and rewaxing were a joy to see and step upon. But the grout was still not clean, and I knew, deep down, that the rest of the floor was waiting for me, my scrubbing brush, and my floor cloth. As I dipped the brush, wrung the cloth, and began the once-familiar bending, stretching, and circling movements – first right hand, then left hand, then both together, I could almost hear Attracta's Antrim tones bridging the decades.

“That's the girl! I think you're getting the hang of this!”

Thank-you, Attracta. Twenty-five years later, to you I dedicate my living room floor.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Bread Matters

I wrote this a little while ago.

I miss making bread. I miss the feel of the dough, the smell of the baking, and the taste of warm bread with melting butter.

Every year I make the resolution that this year I’ll find the time -- no, this year I’ll make the time to bake. In the beginning I made ambitious resolutions: “I’ll bake all of our bread – even pittas!” or “I’ll bake at least twice a week!” or even “I’ll refuse to buy bread. That way I’ll have to bake, and my family, if they want bread, will have to eat my healthy bread!”

Gradually the resolutions dwindled to desires, and finally even the desires were beaten down by my husband’s dislike for whole wheat bread and my children’s clamours for square sliced white. What’s the point of baking if only I am going to eat it?

But an hour ago I saw a recipe for Irish soda bread. And between the lines I thought I smelled an aroma that permeated my young adulthood – when I used to bake Irish soda bread in my Galway kitchen. My high school friend, Erin, and I would go blackberrying in the lanes near Spiddal and we would come home for tea and warm soda bread, spread thickly with Kerrygold butter and homemade jam.

Could I recapture the feeling of culinary comfort in my Mediterranean kitchen?

The recipe is heartbreakingly easy (why have I taken so long to make it?). Mix three hundred grams of white flour with three hundred grams of whole wheat. Add a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of soda. Made a well in the centre and pour in a milk-yoghurt mix of about 450ml. Combine the ingredients until all of the flour is incorporated in a loose, but not wet ball. Knead for just a moment. Flatten to five centimetres thickness. Cut a deep cross on the top, prick the corners to let the fairies out, then bake in a 230C oven for twenty minutes before decreasing the heat to 200C for a further fifteen. Break on the cross, slice if you can, spread with Kerrygold. Eat.

The loaf came from the oven risen and crusty. When I knocked the base, it rewarded me with a fine dusting of brown flour and a hollow thump. It smelled the same as my Irish version – not yeasty, of course, but warm and wheaty. It tasted the same – a bit like pastry, but with an edge. It didn’t capture the feeling, because tastes and smells -- even when they match memories -- need a secret ingredient based on time and place to do that. (When I lived in Hawaii, I loved guavas. Here, although we planted a tree with seeds from Hawaii, I can’t abide them: some kind of reverse alchemy gets to work and in the absence of Hawaiian air, light, scents, something, I can’t even stand the smell.)

But it revived my resolution. I will make time to bake. And even if I’m the only one who eats my bread, I will enjoy the process.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


This is not a political blog: I confine it strictly to what goes on around me and concerns my life here. That doesn't mean that I am unaware of, or unaffected by, what goes on in the wider world. My thoughts have turned often in the last weeks to Gaza. I have no love for Fundamentalism in any form (neither do many Gazans) – and 'sadness' and 'anger' do not begin to describe what I feel when I think of what those people have endured, and are continuing to endure. The other day I read in the paper that a Palestinian woman had said “During the siege, we described our situation as catastrophic. Things are now so much worse that the dictionary has run out of words.”

Here is a blog that I have been following: http://a-mother-from-gaza.blogspot.com/

My past – before I settled down and became a respectable matron – included Palestinian and Israeli friends. I spent months in their lands, in their streets, in their homes, trying to understand both perspectives. I think that this current spasm of violence will solve nothing.

Ricochets and Shell Fragments

You remember a boot, level with your right eye.
Scuffed, brown; olive trousers bloused mid-shin.
It tilted slightly – a pebble caught under the heel –
then shifted as its wearer turned, and caught your little
The pain remained after the dust-puffs of retreating steps had settled and the
crunch of footsteps had died away.

I remember a sharp ache, behind my left ear.
The rifle's flash suppressor left a wicked imprint, its memory
forever linked with the close-up smell of rain-wet pavement, the taste of pennies,
the reflection of orange city street lights in puddles.

“I find killing a dog harder,” the soldier said. (His friend nodded) “I have fired into crowds
without remorse.
A smiling woman, a beckoning child, any man
might shield a killer.
I lost a mate that way, and learned I'd rather shoot the child first.
Just to be sure.”

In ripples-too-small-to-be-waves a broken periwinkle
– some creature's shattered once-home –
grinds to shingle with pebbles dragged in and out,
in and out.
Purple and white, iridescent, it flashes
in the late afternoon sun.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Medical Musings

Lise's youngest son, Joey, who's five years old, fell off a low swing last year directly onto his knee. The shock of the impact travelled up his femur and snapped off the head. Joey spent a week in hospital before having pins put into his bone, and then spent two months in a cast that completely encased one leg, left a space for a nappy, encircled his pelvis to the waist, and went down the leg to his other knee. He has been out of plaster for about a month, but is still immobile – or as immobile as a five-year-old can be. He went to the hospital (Paphos General) for a check-up yesterday, and Lise related the experience.

“The doctor – one of the eminent orthopaedic surgeons of Cyprus – looked at Joey, scratched his head, and said that the bottom of the break was healing nicely and the top was just beginning to knit. 'What now?' he mused. 'Crutches, I think. Go down to orthopaedic and the nurse there will teach you how to use them.'

“So we went down to Orthopaedic and the nurse there was someone we know well from the village... 'Yes, yes, we'll show you – but where are the crutches?' So Costas (Lise's husband) said 'I thought that you had them here...' 'Oh, no!' says the nurse. 'You need to supply them...' 'Where do we get them?' we asked. 'The doctor should know.'

“We called the doctor. No, he didn't have any and there weren't any in the hospital. Why not try the disabled shop at the end of the road?”

They took Joey – carrying him, of course – to the shop opposite the hospital which has all manner of wheelchairs, bedpans, bandages, canes, and other paraphernalia in the window. “Do you have children's crutches?” The smallest pair in the shop came to well above Joey's head.

“Crutches for children?” the clerk looked bemused. “Uh, no. Let me phone the supplier in Nicosia and see if they have some that they can send down to us.”

The supplier had none, and knew of no place that might have them.

“Let's try Yiannis' pharmacy,” suggested Costas.

So they get back into the car and head off to a pharmacy owned by another of Costas's co-villagers. Costas went in to ask, and in a few minutes returned: “Pass me Joey. Yiannis has none, but we are going to measure Joey, and then cut down a small pair that a friend of his is going to send from a pharmacy in Limassol.”

The crutches eventually came, and Joey tried them out, with indifferent success. “I think it's going to be a case of by-the-time-he-gets-used-to-them-we-wont-need-them-any-more,” sighed Lise. “But it just leaves me wondering if Joey is the only child who has ever broken his leg in Cyprus... He couldn't be – so what do they do with all the others?”


On a slightly different note, a paragraph in the Cyprus Mail makes thought-provoking reading: According to Doctor Marcos Phillipou, head of Casualty at Paphos General, by noon of Boxing Day, over 300 people had taken refuge at the emergency ward of Paphos hospital, the majority suffering from abdominal pains due to over consumption...

Friday, January 2, 2009

Pranks Among Shepherds

While out hunting, Giorgos-the-Hunter shot two hares, a large one and a small one. Wanting to play a trick on his sympetheros (his daughter's father-in-law), Fosis, he cut the legs off both and sewed the legs of the large one onto the small hare, then wrapped the hare loosely in a cloth, and presented the package. Fosis' eyes lit. A juicy hare for the pot! When he opened the package and beheld the puny offering, he realised that, yet again, he was butt of a prank.

He often is. Something about him attracts piss-takes of a very Cypriot kind – harmless, but gut-wrenchingly funny. The following week, Giorgos-the-Mechanic got him. Fosis has two jobs. He has a 'mandra' – a corall, with a large flock of sheep and goats that he farms for meat and milk, and he has a side business supplying tables and chairs to community functions such as baptisms, engagements, and weddings – which often attract thousands of guests. To service this job he had just bought a new truck.

The evening before a function Fosis loaded his new truck to the rails, then went to bed ready to make his delivery the next morning. While he slumbered, Giorgos-the-Mechanic jacked the truck's back axel on to stands so that the back wheels hung a bare inch above the earth – undetectable to any but a keen observer. In the morning, after his farm chores, Fosis leaped into the cab to make his delivery. He turned the key, let out the clutch and released the handbrake. But lo! Instead of rolling gently down the curving cement road, the truck remained stationary, engine rising in pitch as Fosis hit the accelerator. He checked the brake, checked the clutch, switched off. Switched on again. Same story. Only then did he get out to check.

Giorgos-the-Mechanic got his desserts... Winter is pig slaughter season – time for the making of sausages, the curing of lountza, and the creation of other local delights. Fosis had a big male pig to kill, and following its butchering, he took the testicles – large, slippery, and pink – and slipped them under the clutch and accelerator pedals of Giorgos-the-Mechanic's Mercedes.

Fosis enjoys hunting, and Giorgos-the-Mechanic was quick to respond. Going up to help Fosis with some farm work at the mandra one morning, he took with him a small cassette recorder complete with a tape of the sound that a female hare makes when she is in season. At intervals through the morning, Giorgos-the-Mechanic slipped out of the mandra to where he had secreted the casette recorder, and switched on the tape. Fosis, never far from his shotgun would pick it up each time he heard the quiet 'hare call', and rush outside hoping to bag a prize for the pot. “I know it's there!” he shouted, increasingly frustrated as the day wore on. “There must be hundreds of them out there by now, that randy female has been calling every buck in the district! But can I find them?”

Eventually he stumbled upon Giorgos-the-Mechanic, crouched paralysed with laughter over the little machine. Fosis swung the shotgun up: “I'll kill you, you bastard, damn your race! You're always teasing me!” As yet, he has made no response.

Giorgos-the-Hunter told us these tales yesterday when we made a family New Year visit to help them eat the left-over food from the night before's party. My dialect is not good enough to understand everything, but Alex and Best Beloved, their own eyes streaming with tears of laughter, managed a consistent translation.

Giorgos-the-Hunter has been the butt of jokes himself. Perhaps the best was twelve years ago, after he had started building his house on the edge of the land that his father had just informally divided between his three sons. His father, well connected since schooldays with a number of government employees in the Paphos area, had tipped off the official and the surveyor from the Land Survey Office, and when the day came to put in the official boundary markers, they arrived dead-pan and went about their work – Giorgos and his father in attendence.

“There seems to be a problem here, Re Andrea,” the official said to Giorgos's father. He pointed at the plans that he had prepared. “Your son is building part of his house in the neighbour's field.”

There are rarely fences in rural Cyprus. Although meticulous ownership deeds are lodged with the Land Survey Office, many a farmer points to an imaginary line between a clump of carob trees and a rocky outcropping and says: “My field stretches from here to that big olive tree, and then over to the ditch.” Thus had Giorgos and his father scoped out the land where Giorgos had started building, and thus, when the surveyor pointed out landscape features and compared them to the doctored plans, it became apparent that half of Giorgos's new house was indeed in the neighbour's field.

“B-But how can this be?” Giorgos stammered. “What can I do?”

“You'll have to see if Panicos will sell you a strip of the field,” was the answer. “But it will cost a pretty penny.”

“And if he won't sell, you'll have to demolish what's built, pay compensation for the land you've damaged, and move the building back to here,” they paced off a distance. “Which means that you'll lose the nice view you were hoping for on the old spot.”

“I've got to call him,” Giorgos was near panic. “We have to sort something out. I can't knock down the house and start again!”

I don't know how long the three other men were able to keep the joke going before their contained mirth got the better of them, but the joke will stand in the neighbourhood as the best for a long time. Maybe that's why Giorgos is going after Fosis: he has a reputation to restore.