Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Weekend Under Canvas


Saturday morning I woke in the cool mountain air to the long-ago-familiar walls of the van. We were camping in my old home, Platania.

The camping plan had come about slowly and surely following repeated requests from The Littles. Zenon had gone away for a night’s camp in Salamiou with his taekwando class, but had not had a great time, and Leo was dead keen to spend a night outdoors in the tent. Best Beloved -- although a bit fragile thanks to a chronic back problem – climbed on board. With his support, I knew that the endeavour would get off the ground, so I was glad when he came back from work on Thursday saying “Camping this weekend!”

The Big Ones baulked at once.


“I’m not going!”

Yet they had no convincing arguments, and “I just don’t want to!” doesn’t cut it. We decided that on Friday Alex, Leo, and I would drive the van up to the mountain Forestry Department campsite where I had spent the summer of 1991, taking the two big tents, the barbeque, the food, and most of the chairs; and that Best Beloved would follow with Sophia and Zenon when Zenon’s taekwando class finished at 4.30.

Leo and I arrived home from shopping Friday nooon to learn that the trip was off. “Sophia won’t go,” said Best Beloved. “I have tried everything to persuade her, but she’s not budging and I cannot physically force her. What she doesn’t realise yet is that that is the end for all t.v. and computer privileges for everyone indefinitely.” He was not pleased.

Neither was I, and neither was everyone else. But Madame was oblivious, and tripped around the house smirking until a lunchtime outburst from Leo prompted her to mutter: “Well if it really is spoiling everyone’s weekend, I guess I’ll go.”

We left after lunch. The van is approaching its twenty-second birthday, but has just passed its MOT and has had its exhaust repaired. The brakes are a little dodgy, but I drive sedately and although it took us well over an hour, we climbed up from the coastal plain into the forest, crossed the hump of the Troodos range, and arrived at the Platania campsite with plenty of daylight left to set up camp.

When I was single and footloose, travelling Europe and the Middle East in the van, I spent several months up there, waiting for friends to restore a sail boat in Larnaca and writing and photographing articles for Cyprus Airways’ in-flight, Sunjet. The mountains were a cool haven after the heat of the towns, and I fell in with a community of retired local people who summered in their tents and caravans every year.

“Park up with us,” they urged me as the summer wore on. “For the month of August, the rest of the campsite will be a zoo as EVERYONE and their mother comes up here for their annual holidays.” I parked up with them and was glad: the lower campsite heaved with tents and caravans, squalling children, and billowing smoke from countless barbeques. When the tide of humanity receded at the end of August, a scum of garbage was left. Forestry service personnel hauled it away by the truckload.

But the August hordes had not arrived yet, and most of the permanent caravans were silent. A school trip – fifteen identical tents of blue and silver – crowded a lower quadrant, a few families had set up scattered sites for the weekend, and in the ‘permanent corner’ – where I spent those months so long ago – newly watered pot-plants testified to some early arrivals.

Alex, Leo, and I set up the two tents on flat pitches near a cooking area, convenient to a water point, and not too far from the playground, toilet and shower block. Two hours later Best Beloved and the others arrived in the Land Rover.

What did we do for two days? Not much.

We went for a walk in the pine woods, marvelling at pine trees half a millennium old, twisted into the shape of giant bonsais and with branches bowed by snow. Leo and I lagged behind the others (“Well,” I told him. “You have short legs and I have a camera!”) looking at mosses and ferns and the lichens that veil the forest. I had forgotten how observant small children are, but he insisted that I slow my steps, look around, and explain everything.

We visited the old village at Kakopetria, examining the mud and lime plaster on the rambling village houses, and replacing the clay pot that Best Beloved used to cook in before the drama class accident that left it in pieces.

Traditional sweets for sale in Kakopetria.

We read in the shade, and relaxed in the coolness; cooked over gas and an open fire, slept in the van with the door open, and laughed as the children – Big and Little – played complicated games of Balance on the Seesaw and sniping in the woods. “Bang! Sophia out…. I blew you to submarines!” Somehow two new words confused Leo.

On Sunday we broke camp, met some friends for lunch at a trout restaurant in Platres, and make the slow trek back to the low-lands.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

End of Year Play

I never said anything about the Littles’ End of Year Play. Life got too hectic for the next week, but it was the most impressive performance that I have seen from a school, yet.

The singing and dancing cobbler, and the soldiers -- Zenon at far right.

Staged in the Museum at Kouklia – a Lusignan Period manor house – the play was a fairy tale involving a Princess, some soldiers – including one that became an unwitting suitor and one (Zenon) who chased a live chicken across the market square, several priests, a singing and dancing cobbler, and assorted villagers. The stage was large, the choreography complex, but the students and teachers carried the whole event off with style.

Waving the sixth-graders off to Gymnasium (Junior high school).

There were even weepy moments when local dignitaries presented the sixth grade students with their diplomas and the students filed away through the lamplight to the waves of their former colleagues.

A sea-change seems to be happening in Cypriot schools – at least the smaller elementary schools – as I’ve heard some other good comments from other parents with children in village schools. Teachers and administrators have been discovering that creativity and diversity, far from being a threat, can be an asset.

The bigger concrete education jungles in towns see increasing vandalism, violence, and nascent gang problems. Maybe the powers that be in Nicosia will realise the merit in downsizing, and instead of building more soul-less boxes devoid of greenery where thousands of children are ‘educated’ together, will clean up and restore to use some of the beautiful old neo-colonial schools in the villages and smaller towns – a possibly more complex undertaking than tendering the building of big schools to old buddies in the construction business, but one that in the long run, I truly believe, would pay big dividends.

Hope springs eternal!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Summer Picnic

“Wow!” said Sophia. “Real water that's not in a bottle or the tap! Or,” as an afterthought. “The sea, of course...”

We had reached the river.

Wondering what to do on a long Sunday morning, I had suggested a pic-nic and we agreed that we should visit the Turkish Cypriot property that we rent in the village of Agios Ioannis. Then Best Beloved developed the theme further by saying that on the way he wanted to visit one of the Ottoman pointed bridges near the deserted monastery of Synti, so we packed an Eskie and some plastic plates, bought some water, ice, and fruit at the kiosk in Mandria, and headed into the hills.

I was in a spiky mood. Since having children my sense of physical adventure has largely deserted me, and while 16 years ago, heading off into the hills for some off-road adventure in a Land Rover would have been grist to my mill – I used to drive diving safaris in the Sinai, for god's sake! – these days I am more inclined to adventure of the armchair variety. Armchairs don't tip over, get flat tyres, run out of water, or crash. “Oh for heaven's sake, calm down and relax!” exclaimed Best Beloved in frustration when I begged that he ask for directions in the kiosk. “We speak the lingo and we're never going to be far from a village!”

I calmed down and relaxed somewhat as we reached Nata and asked about the bridge. “Go down to the river,” a local told us. “You'll find an asphalt road marked Kelokedara...” Where the asphalt road crossed the river we asked a man filling 20 litre jerries how far the bridge was. “Follow the sign to the monastery, then keep going. It's a long way, but there's only one road!”

The asphalt petered out to dirt and stones. The river appeared and disappeared, sometimes flowing underground on its way to the dam, and as we pushed further into the hills, big rocks and trees began appearing along its banks. We reached the restored monastery of Synti, and although it was locked, the children and I wriggled in through a window and explored various nooks and crannies. Then we pushed on to where tall trees and oleander bushes overhung the water, and the coolness and ample shade invited us to stop for lunch. Only one other time have I ever seen a river running during the summer in Cyprus – the same for Sophia, hence her comment.

After lunch we paddled, and where the creek ran shallow and narrow I suggested building a dam from some of the big, smooth rocks that formed the bed and banks.

Sophia was the first to start, laying four or five flat stones as a foundation from the far shore. Whether from bravado, lack of thought, or a random urge to destroy, Alex dropped a boulder on the lot – wiping out her work, and splashing all of us. Furious, Sophia turned on him, and Best Beloved, too, told him off. Construction resumed, with the Littles and me working on one side, and the Big Ones on the other.

Alex picked up another big boulder, sighted it precisely, and let it drop into a hole. The resulting splash wet Sophia again, and she turned on Alex and attacked him, throwing the rock that was in her hand and lunging at him.

Alex holds a Second Dan black belt in Tae Kwan Do; Sophia will take her black belt exams next year. They both have tempers, and are both suffering the hormonal tides of adolescece, so life with them right now can be... exciting; and the occasional physical conflict is like Clash of the Titans. The fight lasted about a minute, with more boulder hurling, a choke hold or two, and some effective kicks and punches before Sophia scrambled to her feet, grabbed her handbag and stormed off, unhurt but angry with Best Beloved's admonishment to not 'go far because we're leaving soon' in her ears.

We chastised Alex for not keeping his temper, and for – yet again – overreacting to provocation, and returned to dam building, imagining Sophia just out of earshot beside a shady pool with her book.

Half an hour later, we decided to pack up. No Sophia. Anywhere. After five minutes of searching on foot along the river, we got in the Land Rover and drove a little way in the direction that she had walked. Calling, sounding the horn, searching, produced nothing. Alex spotted a shepherd a top a steep hill, and climbed up to him to ask if he had seen her. Nope. We sent Alex back to the picnic spot with my phone and told him to wait there – family rules being that if someone is lost or separated they return to the place where we were last all together – while Best Beloved and I drove back along the river with the Little Ones.

Three quarters of the way to the monastery, we decided that she couldn't have come this far: it was midday, the temperature in the mid-thirties, she had no bottled water, and Sophia likes her comforts. After an hour's searching I was worried that she was either snake-bit or hurt. Thank goodness we don't have to worry about abduction here... yet. But “I didn't like the look of that shepherd!” Alex muttered. “And he was a Syrian!”

“Alex, he's hardly going to leave his sheep, dash down the mountain, hurt or abduct Sophia, and dash back up to his sheep again,” I said. “And besides, my experience of Syrian shepherds is that they all look dodgy, but the ones I've met have hearts of gold...” But that still didn't get us Sophia.

“Drive all the way to the monastery,” Best Beloved finally told me. “And if she's not there, call me. I'll go back along the river.” Alex and I got into the Land Rover with the Little Ones knowing that we were one step away from calling in reinforcements. The nearest police station was Kelokedara, and it would take at least an hour to get a search team assembled there, and another hour before they could be out in the bush. We had plenty of light left, but the afternoon had gone from being one of light-hearted adventure to one tinged with menace.

Where Best Beloved and I had turned back before, Alex and I saw Sophia sashaying along the track in the direction of our picnic spot. I pulled up beside her, feeling grim as she gave me a saccharine smile. “I really hope that you've been enjoying yourself!” I said as she climbed into the back.

We called Best Beloved to say that we'd found Sophia, then backtracked to pick him up. “Did you not think that we'd be looking for you?” he asked her “That we'd be worried?”

“Oh, yes. I knew you'd be looking for me!” was her cool reply (“I'm suffering, and I'm going to make all of you suffer, too...”).

We didn't say anything all the way back. When we reached the house, the Big Ones went their separate ways – although I called them back to help wash the picnic debris. Zenon took the dog out for a walk, and Best Beloved and I discussed the afternoon. “I'll talk to her in a bit,” he said. “There's no point in punishment – this is teenage attention-seeking – but she's got to realise that it doesn't work like it's intended.” We agreed that while the roots lie in her age, her best friend's death last month probably contributed, and Alex's breaking of her phone last week was a more recent catalyst.

“How does the poem go?” Best Beloved asked. “'Ours is not to reason why/Ours is but to do and die'? And not give up on them. They will make us suffer – I never got to see my bridge – and we have to be patient and strong and guide them... And everything will turn out all right in the end...”

“If I'm not in the loony-bin first,” I finished for him. Before promising that next weekend, we'll try again – and this time, we'll find his bridge.

Monday, June 15, 2009


We have acquired a dog… again.

Last week I was driving up from the main Paphos to Limassol road to our village, and just when the road began its series of S-bends to reach the first plateau a small golden bitch ran out into the road and began frantically dashing up and down the centre line. I slowed to a crawl, she went out in front of me, then ran back to the other side almost under the wheels of an oncoming car that stopped with a screech. Desperate, searching, she ran to the side of the road, so I … pulled to the hard shoulder and called her. And she came. Timid, yet almost delirious with joy, she jumped into the front seat and we drove home.

Best Beloved was clipping the row of vines that line the concrete road after the turn off, and as I slowed down to talk to him, his gaze drifted to my new companion.

“No!” he said. “Not another Pathetic Life Form”

“It’s all right,” I reassured him. “I’ll take her to the Shelter on the way to drama class.”

But both Zenon and Sophia fell in love with her, and even I – who don’t like dogs as a rule – was a little smitten. She was quiet and well behaved, yet a happy, benign presence.

We took her to the Shelter as promised, but I said to Annie, the custodian, “I’m tipping that I’ll be back for her in a week…”

Best Beloved and I talked about keeping her over the next few days. We have a fundamental difference of opinion about animals. He doesn’t like pets, tolerating dogs – except working dogs – hardly at all, and certainly not in the house. I grew up with pets, and although I’m not partial to dogs, believe that keeping a dog in a cage – all the responsibility but none of the joy – is wrong. On the other hand, Cyprus is a hot place in the summer and dog smell and dog hair in the house is not very pleasant.

We tried a few dogs that found us and we kept because Zenon’s pleas moved us to ‘try just one more time’. Sam the Beagle was beautiful, stoic, great with Zeen, and thick as two planks. He went to the shelter after an unmanageable month. Lucy the Border collie was bright and beautiful – so bright that she could not cope with loneliness in the pen where we kept her, and drove us nuts with her barking. We re-homed her with a nice English family who gave her all the love and attention that she demanded.

We decided to stay petless – until Lizzie, that is.

Mili’s smaller dog having died last summer, Mili had a vacant pen, so she agreed that we could move it to our land for Lizzie. Nepalese L came Saturday and spent the morning levelling ground in a shady spot under a carob tree close to the house, and building a platform so that the winter rain will not flood her out, then with great ceremony he, Best Beloved, Alex, and I moved the pen into its new position and secured it.

On Sunday, I drove to the shelter to collect her and bring her home.

She has settled in quickly. Exuberant with the children and me, she takes us for walks in the early morning or at dusk; respectful to Best Beloved, she has earned his grudging ‘I suppose she’s not bad for a dog!’

Let’s see how it all works out.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Monday was the Cypriot holiday of Kataklysmos – celebrating the Flood and honouring the Holy Spirit. When we were homeschooling, I took Alex and Sophia to the monastery of Agios Neophytos to find out what the holiday was about because I couldn’t figure it out from others’ explanations. Anyway, we found a friendly monk and he told us that according to Cypriot Orthodox belief, the Holy Spirit is linked with water, cleansing, and purification, and is therefore honoured during the celebration that commemorates the Flood.

On a practical level, all Cypriot children know the day as Water Day, and mine usually remind me of its coming for weeks in advance and urge my purchase of the biggest, most garish, and most powerful water guns that the supermarket can provide. They spend the day filling these weapons and ambushing everyone from their grandfather to the goats, the cat, and the Vietnamese helper, and throwing water balloons that we all spend the next few weeks cleaning up.

But this year, because Kataklysmos is not a part of my culture and I was busy with other things, I forgot and they didn’t remind me. So no guns, no balloons, “No FUN!” the Littles yelled indignantly.

Because I hate dealing with the crowds at the waterfront for the traditional celebrations – the bishop throws a cross into the harbour and youths dive for it, retrieve it, are blessed, and then party in the restaurants – I decided to take Zenon and Leo up the road to the Village at Aphrodite Hills where I knew that there would be a small celebration involving a Bouncy Castle and several of their friends from school.

I sat with mothers in the playground – and felt as if I were in a time warp.

Two of the mothers I sort of know – one in a social way (her husband and mine are acquainted), and one because my children and hers go to the school at Kouklia and, mine translate for them and have forged the kind of strong friendships that come from being ‘different’ in a close-knot community.

I felt like a matriarch: the oldest mother there, and the one with the oldest children – Zenon -- at nine -- had a year on the oldest boy there, and most of the kids were two or three. I hadn’t sat with a group like this for at least ten years because Kay has most of the social care of the Littles, and when I do have them, it’s not in a context of smaller children, but of their peers and older. When I said that my oldest son was fifteen, and that I had a daughter of thirteen, a few looks of relief were exchanged among the ladies bouncing small babies on their laps: ‘there is life after babies and toddlers then!’

I did feel a bit strange when I saw all the babies sucking on bottles and dummies. My crowd all nursed our babies to toddlerhood, and we didn’t have nappy bags that matched our push-chairs and inexhaustible supplies of baby-wipes. But we didn’t hang out in the shadow of the ritzy InterContinental then, either! The town park did the job…

Our chat covered the usual parenting topics of foreign mothers in Cyprus: in-laws – for the two of us married to locals, schools, Greek, supermarkets, ‘home’ and how much more pleasant life in Cyprus is than life ‘Back in the UK’.

“You know, looking around here, I can see all sorts of things that just wouldn’t happen ‘at home’,” one of the ladies said. “The trampoline, for instance, would have to have a guard on it; there’s no way that pony rides would be allowed; parents would not be helping children that they didn’t know on the climbing frame or swings; and YOU,” she looked pointedly in my direction, “certainly wouldn’t be allowed in here with a camera!”

Another mother took up the theme: “Since we came here from M (a town in the North of England), I’ve felt like I’ve become a whole new person. At home, I never would have allowed T. outside the house alone (T is eight). Here, every morning, he takes the garbage, walks across the road, and puts in the wheelie bin! I drive around with the window open, and I don’t feel like I have to be quizzing every body about where they are and what they’re doing all the time…”

She is unusual though, in that she and her husband are committed to learning Greek, to keeping their children in a Cypriot community, and to embracing the life here. Her two younger children, already in kindergarten and pre-school, will not have the difficulties that her 6- and 8- year-old are facing with language and playmates.

Most of the English that have come in the last year or two have no interest Cypriots. And now that enough Brits have moved here to create a parallel economy – they can come here, buy land, build a house and fit it out, send their kids to school, socialise, and collect their pension all without encountering a single local – they increasingly hold themselves aloof. (When they die, however, their relatives do have to deal with the local bureaucracy.) Very few newcomers bother to try learning Greek, let alone to understand the place to which they have moved. As long as the sun shines (but not too much!), the beer, wine, and smokes are cheap, and the locals keep to their place, they’re not bothered…

… But I digress and start to rave. This will be a topic for a later post that I feel brewing.

For now, I’ll return to the playground at Aphrodite Hills, its stunning view over the sea, and the breezes that played on the back of our necks as we sat watching our little darlings bounce indefatigably in the ‘Jumping Castle. All day admission free to children under 12’. (“You mean there’s something free here!” one of the women exclained. “Amazing!”) We took turns strolling around and look at the stalls set up in honour of the holiday, munched pizza, drank cool bottled water, and listened to the Greek dance music that floated down from the Exhibition in the Village Square. It was a good day. With Kay off to a wedding in England for a fortnight next week I will be spending more time with the Littles, and I’m looking forward to that. Summer is hot, but not yet oppressive, and school is nearly out!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

My New Companion

Part IV of What is my Body Telling Me?

I have acquired a skeletal shadow, a figure that haunts my every step, mirrors my every move…

“Are you all right?” Barbara asked me yesterday on my fifth visit.

I smiled. “How do I look?”

“Not comfortable,” she answered. “I can see your energy body as well as your physical body,” (‘Yes?’ I thought.) “and there is a blockage at your shoulders where the energy is not flowing well.”

She was spot on. All week, whether I was sitting, standing, or walking, I had been aware of my shoulders like never before. I could feel them – high and tense – almost clamped around my ears. I would try to drop them, to relax, only to feel them creeping up a few moments later. I felt as if my centre of gravity was so high that I was struggling to balance.

When I was on the table, Barbara started to work on my back, mostly on my left side. “You’ll feel lopsided after this treatment,” she informed me. “Because I’m only working on one side. Your left side will instruct your right side how to carry itself, and pretty soon your body will balance itself again.”

She worked on my neck, my shoulder, my hip, taking the weight of my limbs, rotating my joints. We talked of cats, of friends present and past, of life in Cyprus.

When I stood up at the end of the session, she looked at me critically. “That’s better. Your centre of gravity has dropped right down and your shoulders look much more powerful. You looked all hyped and ethereal when you came in.”

“But how do I keep myself like this?” I asked. “I feel as if every session I take three steps forward, then by the end of the week I go two back…”

“By integrating your whole body into every movement,” she replied. “What are your most common work actions?” I mimicked the straight-forward chopping movement that I make every day with a hoe.

“Try and use your pelvis more, and don’t lock your head,” she suggested, imitating me, but adding a graceful wiggle and allowing the weight of her head to lead the movement. It looked almost like a dance, but I wondered how it would adapt to a two-kilogram implement being used on somewhat uneven ground. “Remember that if the energy is blocked in any one of the body’s three girdles, the others will be affected. Even if you hold your head, thus,” she stiffened her neck “—or grimace – it locks up the energy.” She continued ‘hoeing’ with a wiggle. “Do you see how my whole body is working together? The vertebrae are opening up, closing. The spine is a unit, curving.” Superimposed on her body, I imagined a medical diagram – skull, shoulders, arms, spine, pelvis, legs. It moved with her physical body; hoed, as she did, with a wiggle.

When I went to put my sandals on, Barbara stopped me with a “No, no, no!” I was standing on one leg. “Your body’s struggling with balance issues at the moment,” she reminded me. “And standing on one leg is way too threatening for it just now. As soon as you do that – a habitual movement – your body goes ‘Ooo-er!’ and reverts to old habits. Once you’re stable and have learned to control your head, by all means stand on one leg, but not for now.”

She bent me over from the hips. “Now, soften your knees. Follow your head and touch the ground. Come up slowly. Drop your shoulders. Lovely! Did you feel your weight go back down?” I had. She touched just below my belly button. “Your centre of gravity’s gone right back to where it should be… When you feel all tight around the shoulders and ungrounded, reach down, let your neck go, touch the ground, then come back up. You can also stamp your feet, or do the tai chi exercise of ‘Rooting through the Toes’ – stand firmly and literally imagine roots growing out from your toes and sinking into the earth. It will reconnect you.”

As she showed me out, she ‘hoed’ again, and I watched the graceful movement, followed it, and tried to commit it to my body’s memory.

I have a shadow companion now. It is my own medical diagram, a skeleton that mirrors my every move. When my children were small, they had a computer game of human anatomy; an animated skeleton, Seymour Skinless, guided them through the body’s magic, discussing bones, digestion, nerves, and other subjects in a friendly, accessible way. His sister has moved in with me, and Seymoura sits beside me in the car, walks me to the field, works in my shadow. I raise a hand and she raises hers. I sit and she sits. To check my position, I slide my glance sideways to see if her spine is working as it should. If it’s not, I correct mine, and her position magically corrects itself.

As I lean forward for my tea mug and take a deep pull, I reflect how glad I am that she is but a figment of my imagination. If not, there’d be a hell of a mess to clean up on the couch!