Friday, December 24, 2010

A Day of Baking in anticipation of the Morrow…

I started out making pumpkin pie this morning… well, butternut squash pie, really. I know it’s not Christmas Fare. We don’t always play by the rules, Christmas being such a grafted on novelty to Cypriot culture and our family being such a hybrid blend. Besides that, I had a butternut languishing on the shelf, and Phil liked the pie last time I made it.

By the time that was out of the oven, the Christmas lunch starters were on the rise. Also not Christmas Fare, they are bread sticks from Richard Bertinet’s excellent book, Dough. I pitted olives, grated parmesan, gathered and chopped fresh herbs, then applied them to the dough that Leo had kneaded earlier, folded, cut, and twisted the sticks, put them for a second rise and then baked them… Lo and behold, appetiser and starter for lunch tomorrow… Done!

Poor Leo’s grasped the short straw with his no-gluten diet, so we dived into a recipe of gluten-free carob cookies. We were both a bit dubious of the blend of dried figs, almond flour, honey, vanilla, and butter, and it seemed to produce only a small amount, but I just took them out of the oven and Wowee!! Worth a try even if you’re gluten tolerant, and a super-super food.

This new diet thingie in our lives has led me down some interesting culinary roads and into some fantastic and inspiring blogs. I mean to post more in the new year, but the main thing I’ve learned (which many others have learned before me, but each has to travel their own path) is that substitutes DON’T work. Don’t think you can spend a fortune on gluten free flour or pasta and get the same result that you would with wheat… It doesn’t happen that way. People just say ‘Yuck! It doesn’t taste the same…’ Explore new cuisines instead: Asian food and Mexican are almost completely gluten free. It’s just hard work getting four children to stop resisting new tastes. From all of them, at least once, I’ve heard: ‘I don’t see why I should eat differently just because the others can’t eat what I want!’ Even Best Beloved, though he is the most innovative of us all, drew the line at a gluten free meal.

I did try blood tests for the Littles yesterday, just to see if the results tallied with the bioresonance – even though I have been warned that blood results ‘can give false negatives’. Stay tuned!

Best wishes to everyone for a happy Christmas and a peaceful, healthy, and prosperous 2011.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

It’s Still Greek to Me (Though It’s Now Becoming a Little Clearer)

Despite attending a fancy private school – with commensurately fancy fees – Sophia cannot take both A-Level Greek and GCSE History this year due to scheduling problems. Since she has an inspiring history teacher and the Greek Department is not to write home about, we opted to pursue Greek lessons privately. She speaks Cypriot dialect fluently and is comfortable with spoken Greek, but her reading and writing are not as good as they should be.

I cast around for teachers and decided to try for Maria, my former teacher at InterLingua in Paphos. I had done three years of classes with her, and my Greek’s simple but not bad, and any foreigner who speaks decent Greek here in Paphos has been a student of hers at one time or another. She’s kind, experienced, and a wonderful teacher.

Maria agreed to take us on. Yes, ‘us’. I decided that since I had to fetch and carry Sophia, and wait around for her, and that my Greek could sure use some improvement, that I would go for lessons too. ‘I cannot teach the A-Level course’, she said. ‘I’ve never done that…’ But I was adamant that passing the exam was less important that attaining proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing, and I had the course materials and past papers to work with when we reached that stage, so we began classes on Saturday mornings using a textbook for foreign students that attend Thessaloniki University and need proficiency in Greek before attending their degree classes. Sophia found the review of the basics boring, I found it necessary, and we both found ourselves enjoying the experience – and learning from the varied reading and writing exercises that she gave us every week.

The experience was not to last. Family obligations meant that Maria had to give up our Saturdays, so I went in search of another teacher. I found her in a neighbouring village, Anarita. Yes, she had taught A-Level Greek before, yes, her Saturday mornings were free.

We went to our first lesson a fortnight ago, and I was dropped in the deep end. I could make neither head nor tail of the passage that she gave us to translate, only realising that it had to do with t.v viewing, and that the author had a poor opinion of mass media. Sophia fared better, but found the piece tough going. Later at home, I showed it to Phil, a good English speaker, and one well-used to reading and writing formal Greek.

‘But this is hard even for me!’ he said, helping me through words, phrases, and metaphors while I scribbled down verbs and vocabulary for later memorization.

In class the following week – the setting is one for a true cultural experience: the extended family residence in the heart of the village, granny dying her hair, grandpa whittling, mum cooking behind the curtain that delineats our classroom from the rest of the house – I mentioned that maybe we could start with something easier, and Kyriaki agreed that that might be a good idea ‘But this isn’t a difficult passage!’ she said. ‘You’ll find much harder translations on the real exam.’ She passed us photocopies of declension tables, and lists of verbs that are irregular in the past continuous.

What we’re encountering is the split between teaching for accurate communication, for knowledge, for enjoyment – and teaching for the passing of an exam. Maria, with her experience, is able to cover both. Kyriaki, barely into her twenties, I think will struggle as the education system here is not geared to flexibility: she knows how to teach A-Level Greek, but not ‘Advanced Communication’ in Greek.

We’ll see. Meanwhile, I am filling out my photocopies, learning to decline irregular neuter nouns, getting to grips with the past continuous – a tense that we use practically interchangeably with the simple past in English (as we use the future continuous and simple future). I am reading the Little’s anthologies and working through their textbooks trying to catch up with Sophia in grammar and vocabulary, and have started reading The Little Prince.

I do a lot of waiting around in the car for one child or another to do one class or another, and now, instead of Suduko, I do Greek homework. The other day Sophia spotted my pile of books on the back seat: a ring binder, the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Greek, a fourth-grade textbook, our declension tables, an invaluable tome that I bought over a decade ago called Three-Hundred and Thirty Three Greek Verbs, and my Greek copy of St Exupery’s classic.

‘Mum,’ she said. ‘You really are a nerd, you know? But it’s ok. I still love you…’

Dietary Changes

My family (touch wood) is blessed with good health. But there have been a couple of outstanding issues that various indications – synchronicity, anyone – have led me to consider allergy testing for the Littles. Yesterday, we went to visit my friend and GP, Dr N – a specialist in allergy testing through kinesiology and bioresonance.

Now kinesiology has always been akin to hocus-pocus to me. Hold a substance near your heart while someone tries to push your other arm down? Watch how energy makes a wand move in different ways? If I hadn’t seen water divining work time after time, and if I hadn’t seen kinesiology and bioresonance ‘work’ on my family and me, I would dismiss them like many others do, as quackery. But as it has always indicated accurately for me and the family, (at one low point when my shattered immune system didn’t seem to respond positively to anything, I asked Doc N to test me with respect to Best Beloved. Fortunately the result indicated compatability!), so I decided to give it a try for food sensitivities. If our experience after some weeks shows that it wasn’t accurate, we have other routes to follow.

I ran through the symptoms. Zenon was tested first and his results showed an allergy or sensitivity to lactose (fits with his bowel problems), pork, lamb, citrus, sweeteners and sugar, and mushrooms. Leo was next and tested positive for gluten (fits with his hyperactivity), cocoa, pork, lamb, and citrus.

My domestic life just got a little harder – shopping and cooking just became more complicated.

‘I’m moving out!’ Best Beloved said, when I told him, that the results meant no more souvlaki for the boys – our regular Friday barbeque. ‘I’ll take the foukou up to the quarry and eat there all on my own…’ He was slightly mollified to learn that the boys could still have barbequed halloumi, which is a mixture of goat and sheep cheese. ‘But no pitas!’

Best Beloved, despite niggling minor health issues of his own, resolutely refuses to submit to testing. ‘I like my food, I like my life. If my food kills me, I will die happy!’

Both the Littles are surprisingly acquiescent. They realise that food sensitivities, particularly in childhood, are often temporary, and removal of the allergen can lead to readjustment in the future. In the meantime, I turn to a superb website, Elana’s Pantry, for alternative cooking tips and substitutes for omnipresent gluten, and realise – once again – that the adventure continues!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

White Poppies for Peace

Sophia has been going to school with a white poppy in her blazer lapel. Far less widely recognised than the red poppy sold by the Royal British Legion in the weeks before Armistice Day, the white poppy is a commemoration of the innocents killed in war and a commitment to strive toward the non-violent resolution of conflicts and an understanding of the causes of war – in order to better avoid it.

One of the premises of the Peace Pledge Union, the oldest secular pacifist organisation in Britain and purveyor of white poppies, is that the general (in our society) assumption that ‘a little violence’ can be a useful tool – is a grievous mistake. Reading about the background to the sale and wearing of white poppies has given me tremendous pause for thought over recent days. Violence is endemic in our society – from the very basic level of the family, through the state and to the international arena.

I was brought up with the idea that violence, judiciously used, was an acceptable means to an end. If we didn’t behave, my siblings and I were punished with our pants swiftly pulled to our knees and a few hard applications of a wooden spoon or a bare hand. Later, my mother took to slapping me across the face in order to curb my ‘dumb insolence’. Her father had been a captain in the Royal Navy -- and had abused both his wife and his children. She had no other paradigm for parenting. As far as I know, such punishment was the norm in my friends’ families, too.

I have no other paradigm for parenting either, though I have read of families who manage to maintain discipline and harmony through mutual respect, whose parents say that they could never imagine striking a child.

But I have smacked my children: the older ones swear that I hit them more than I do the younger ones, and I’m sure that they’re right. But as I have matured, both as a person and a parent, realise that a smack – or the fear of one – doesn’t work. And do I want my children to live in fear of my smacking them? Would I prefer that their behaviour were governed by understanding and respect, or by fear? I firmly believe that my Best Beloved’s raising his hand to me would be the only reason for me to pack my bags, so how could I possibly consider spanking my children – so much smaller than I, so much more fragile… and so trusting.

And, worse, I see the older ones following my example: if the Little Ones’ behaviour becomes too annoying, a smack from one of the Big Ones (despite their having been forbidden to strike their siblings – justify that, will you: ‘I can hit someone else in order to impose my will, but you can’t’) will soon follow.

Violence, even on the micro-family level, begets only violence.

And as happens within the family, so happens within the State, and so happens between Nations. Change things at the family level and at the community level, and grows the chance of a paradigm shift at a higher level. Once again we return to Gandhi’s oft-quoted remonstrance to ‘be the change that you want to see in the world.’

A friend of mine, a former Army helicopter pilot once told me (in response to my saying that I ‘would try to get’ something done) ‘There’s no ‘trying’, Asproulla. There’s doing, and there’s not doing.’ So from now on, I pledge to renounce violence as a means to and end, and to work on conflict resolution by peaceful means. One Day at a Time.

To do so is the only way to honour the white poppy in Sophia’s lapel. All else is lip service and window dressing.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Smell of the Wattle

We had our first rains last night -- the first of seven -- no, eight -- months. They were not torrential, they did not scour away my earthworks. But they dampened the ground and they settled the dust, and oh, their fragrance!

Now we are praying for a respite, for clear skies and a dry tomorrow. For tomorrow is The Party. In honour of Hallowe'en. And if everyone who's invited comes, more than one hundred souls will be feasting here tomorrow. School friends of Best Beloved from Nicosia and their families, friends of Alex and Sophia, of Zenon and Leo. Cypriots, English, mixed marriages... 'The whole' (as Kazanzakis's Zorba) would say, 'catastrophe!'

The first rains always remind me of this poem by Kipling.


       (New South Wales Contingent)

Smells are surer than sounds or sights
To make your heart-strings crack--
They start those awful voices o' nights
That whisper, " Old man, come back! "
That must be why the big things pass
And the little things remain,
Like the smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

There was some silly fire on the flank
And the small wet drizzling down--
There were the sold-out shops and the bank
And the wet, wide-open town;
And we were doing escort-duty
To somebody's baggage-train,
And I smelt wattle by Lichtenberg--
Riding in, in the rain.

It was all Australia to me--
All I had found or missed:
Every face I was crazy to see,
And every woman I'd kissed:
All that I should n't ha' done, God knows!
(As He knows I'll do it again),
That smell of the wattle round Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!

And I saw Sydney the same as ever,
The picnics and brass-bands;
And my little homestead on Hunter River
And my new vines joining hands.
It all came over me in one act
Quick as a shot through the brain--
With the smell of the wattle round Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain.

I have forgotten a hundred fights,
But one I shall not forget--
With the raindrops bunging up my sights
And my eyes bunged up with wet;
And through the crack and the stink of the cordite
(Ah Christ! My country again!)
The smell of the wattle by Lichtenberg,
Riding in, in the rain!


Monday, October 18, 2010


Well the diggers have moved out after a week’s tearing, grinding, chipping, and placing of rocks, and I am left with a whole new canvas on which to work magic… or totally screw up.

As my long-suffering readers know, I am on this new kick of rainwater harvesting. Cyprus is not short of water – if it’s collected and used prudently. But there is no infrastructure outside the big dams for rainwater harvesting, and when the rain does fall here (sometimes torrentially between November and April), much of it just slides off the saturated land, tearing off topsoil and staining the sea for hundreds of metres. If that water were captured and either stored in the land in the form of passive earthworks or stored in tanks like it is in Australia, problems of erosion and increasing desertification would be slowed down, there could be a lessening of summer water rationing, and costly oil-driven desalination plants might not need to be rushed into production.

But all that’s wishful thinking on a national scale. All I can do is work on my own little patch.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been constructing berms and basins -- a la Brad Lancaster’s suggestions in his excellent book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond – around the trees in the field. I have been trying to do two trees a day, but a week’s cold held me up so I am 14 trees behind schedule and still have around another forty to do. Each tree needs to have the soil and organic matter – leaf drop, old compost, straw – cleared from trunk to drip-line, then a berm about a foot high constructed on contour at drip-line to catch the run off from irrigation and rain and hold the moisture to let it slowly infiltrate the soil. After I have cleared the soil around the tree, I put a layer of cardboard to help keep down the tenacious, pernicious, and down-right ornery, hard to eradicate rhizome grasses that grow wherever there is moisture, then I add a layer of compost and straw to hold the moisture when it arrives. Look at the calendar: we’re nearly at November and rain has threatened a few times. I am trying to get as much done as possible before I have to deal with mud and run off and all such work grinds to a halt.

(Left)I did this apple tree this morning: in the background weed-infested apples await tomorrow's attentions.
(Below) Necatrine trees. The upslope side is open to catch run-off, and mulched only with a layer of straw. The downslope side is bermed and heavily mulched with cardboard to deter weeds, then covered with a layer of straw.

But the diggers weren’t working in the field. Oh no! They were following a long-laid plan nearer the house to terrace the slope below the olive grove/kitchen garden, where previously a haphazard line of boulders had delineated the beginning of the long drop to the gorge. Then they carved out another terrace on the edge of the property where a road/fire-break – its outside edge to be planted with prickly-pear cactus as another precaution against fire – will circle the house below the retaining wall, giving us almost 360 degree vehicle access to the house.

(Left). Before

(Left) After.

Then Best Beloved decided on a line of Cypress trees above the road – Tuscany comes to Paphos – under-planted with rosemary, lavender, and dryland ground cover (all also bermed and basined and mulched to catch rainwater and divert run-off from the driveway). I finished that this morning, having enjoyed Leo’s invaluable assistance all weekend.

The trouble is that while the diggers did the big earth cutting and rock moving, they left me with the smaller ones. Alex and I have started building dry-stone terraces, again following Mr Lancaster’s instructions. Thank goodness for strapping teenage sons! Alex has willingly schlepped rocks and cut balks to my instruction. If these terraces succeed, thanks will be largely due to him. If they fail, the responsibility is mine – but I will have climbed many steps up the learning curve.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Today is the name day of Saint Loucas, and Loucas is the patron saint of Kouklia village (where the Littles go to school). Thus, all weekend and tomorrow, a Panagiri, or saint’s festival is happening in Kouklia. And of course we had to go: tradition must be observed.

Panagiria are great people magnets – I haven’t seen such crowds in Kouklia’s lanes for a long time. They’re mostly older folk from, the hill villages or children in search of cheap toys (that’s why ours clamour to go: they buy their guns there. I won’t buy guns, but I don’t forbid them, so Zenon and Leo save their pennies and head for the toy stalls with everyone else’s Littles…), but for three days and nights, the village hums.

I used to hate seeing the bags of goldfish and rows of caged songbirds that were prizes in cheap games, but those seem to have disappeared (EU directives on animal cruelty, perhaps?), but I enjoy panagiria for their unbridled local colour and the endless juxtaposition of anomalies.

Where else would you see an elderly woman trying on a lacysilk slip over her housedress, her friends encouraging her, pulling it down, patting it, smoothing it, “Maria mou, it looks lovely on you…”? Or housewives picking up the lid of a handmade glazed clay cooking pot (the kind that Best Beloved uses to make his delicious rabbit casserole) “Hmm, forty Euros. I wonder if it’s worth it. Can it go in the oven?” (“Can it go in the oven?” the seller expostulates. “It’s the best thing you’ll ever find to cook in?”)

Fruit,vegetables, honey and cheeses from local farms and orchards; sheets, towels, and bedspreads from China; traditional local twig brooms, sieves, and mouse traps; and Cypriot goodies like lokoumades – deep fried donut balls sprinkled with flower syrup – and soujouko – nuts on a string dipped over and over into grape must; and a rash of cheap toys: the panagiri has everything, and we returned home with bulging paper bags and empty pockets.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Once again I am facing a dilemma faced by countless parents down the ages: what do you do when your child is bullied?

I was bullied at school, and when it came from an adult (my fourth grade teacher in Australia took out Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War on me and another American embassy girl by grading papers unfairly and making us the butt of countless classroom jibes), my mother stepped up to the plate and complained to the school – to limited effect. But when it came from my peers, I had to learn to deal with it.

Alex and Sophia suffered somewhat, but only at school. And we took them out of school anyway and home-schooled them for several years. Once they were eleven or so, they were independent and strong-minded enough to look out for themselves, and no-one dares look sideways at them today. Both are smart enough to avoid trouble, but each can certainly take care of themselves – and each other – if things do get physical.

But day after day Zenon and Leo come home from school or from Tae Kwan Do with bumps and bruises and stories of being picked on and beaten up by bigger kids either in the playground or in the dojang when the teacher is absent – a frequent occurrence (and don’t make the mistake of believing that a Cypriot martial arts class has anything like the structure, discipline, and respect that an Asian one has!)

Best Beloved has tried talking to teachers and coach, but the results have been minimal.

‘You have to figure this out for yourselves,’ I told the Littles yesterday at lunch. ‘Either by using your brains, making alliances, or somehow convincing the bullies that it’s not in their best interest to pick on you. Or with your fists and feet.

‘I’m not saying,’ I went on, soothing bruises with arnica and ‘make-it-better’ kisses for the umpteenth time. ‘That you seek them out and beat them up. But both of you have fighting skills. Try as hard as you can to avoid using them, but if Marios or Dimitris whacks you again, or trips you up, or punches you in the back, retaliate. And win. It should only take one episode. These kids are bullies. They pick on you because your different. If they know that they can make you squirm and cry, they will – because it makes them feel stronger. Once they learn that you can make them cry, they’ll leave you alone because they don’t want to be seen as weaker than you half-foreigners…’

Then, trolling my Facebook page this morning I found a Blog Post from the Voices Education Project, a non-profit organisation that I have been involved with for the last few years, dedicated to using poetry from soldiers and civilians to help people understand the trauma of war. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, author of the novels Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, said: “At some ideas you stand perplexed, especially at the sight of human sins, uncertain whether to combat it [sic] by force or by human love. Always decide, ‘I will combat it with human love’. If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force; it is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing like it.”

So if I want to live that ideal, (‘Be the change that you want to see in the world’ – thank-you Gandhi) and I want my children familiar with it, what do I tell my young boys about dealing with playground bullies – to whom ‘loving humility’ is so much sissiness?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mangos Finished...

This morning I had the last of the mangos.

We had a great season this year: sold 100 kilos, gave away about fifty, and easily ate another 100 kilos ourselves, starting mid-August and finishing today. We have about fifteen trees, some of them wild, others grafted to four different varieties, and still others in the nursery that are only a foot high and waiting for Best Beloved’s best efforts with his grafting knife. We are the only producers of organic mangos in Cyprus and our fruit is the best because we pick individually and sell in small quantities when each piece is at its optimum ripeness.

Some days this summer we would feast on them out of hand – cutting six or seven at a time and slurping them at the table.

One unforgettable Sunday, I rediscovered that the best place to eat a mango is in the sea: we had gone with Li’l Bro (my youngest brother-in-law who lives abroad) and his children to a deserted beach in the Akamas. There I gorged in the shallows, salt water mixing with sweet juice – and an in-place clean-up. Perfect.

Most mornings Best Beloved and I enjoyed a smoothie. Pick 2 or three ripe mangos and a handful of figs. Blend with yoghurt, water, and ice-cubes. Beats wheatie-puffs hands down as breakfast of champions.

This morning was my last one… I walked the Littles to the supermarket to catch the bus, then went to the field where I spent an hour-and-a-half digging berms and basins for rainwater harvesting around the fruit trees.

Then I went home, sliced the last, perfect mango into the blender (no figs today), and enjoyed the closing of the season.

Blessings on the mangos, for they are the very best.

Monday, September 27, 2010

September Borscht

The first beets are ready in the garden and last night I cooked a goose that had plenty of leftovers. So what was for lunch today? Borscht.

I have loved borscht since I went to the Brezhnev-period Soviet Union on a school trip in 1981. It was a staple in the restaurants of all the hotels that we stayed – each recipe a little different, each one filling and warming and just wonderful.

When Leo was born, a lovely Ukrainian woman called Tania was doing my cleaning. She made me some wonderfully restorative borscht – and even better, taught me how to make my own. Except in the summer months, when beets cannot grow here, I make it throughout the year.

First I picked everything off the goose carcass, put the bones in a pan of water, and made some rich stock. Then I fried an onion and garlic in a spoonful of goosefat, added a couple of chopped beets, a chopped potato, a chopped red pepper, and a chopped carrot and let them all sweat a little. Three hundred or so millilitres of chopped tomato that I had frozen earlier this summer followed, along with the goose stock, the carcass pickings, and the finely chopped beet leaves. I simmered it for about twenty minutes, then served myself a big bowl complete with a spoonful of sour cream. Delightful. It could have used some dill, but I didn’t have any.

My children turned their noses up at it, silly darlings. So I enjoyed it all by myself.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Kouklia Eyesore

The hill on the far right was created entirely from earth excavated in the development.

About a year ago, I noticed heavy machinery beginning to carve terraces in the hill on the other side of the valley. Best Beloved found out that a developer called Panaretou was planning to build seventy-odd maisonettes there.

Since then, Panaretou built a mountain, literally, from the soil that he carved from the hillside. Day in, day out, earth movers crawled, scoops dug, cement churned and spurted.

‘Who’s giving him the money for this development?’ we asked ourselves. And later: ‘And who’s going to buy these boxes and live in them?’

Driving past on the way to the beach last month, I realised that they faced the summer afternoon sun. We christened them The Ovens, and watched their progress with amazement and dismay.

This morning, Best Beloved’s first words (almost) to me were. Panaretou’s gone bust. And as I sat drinking my coffee on the verandah I looked out over the valley and saw the waste: the waste of the natural beauty (ok, it’s not a stunning hillside, but, unscarred it was comely), the waste of the resources, the pollution.

‘What will happen?’ I asked Best Beloved. ‘Will it be covered up, filled in, made safe, at least?’

‘After a kid or two dies playing in there, Kouklia council may fence it,’ he answered. ‘Meanwhile, it will just stay like that as no-one will want to take on that project now!’

Monday, August 30, 2010

Outside Improvements

Our house is still a work in progress, constantly evolving, and recently we have been paying attention to the outside.

Some time ago I began the side garden. Sophia had said when we moved in that she wanted it for hers and we let her have it. We planted a hibiscus, two plumerias, and a mulberry and she put in some other flowers. But teens change as times change and her care of it fell by the wayside. It became a messy burden, a haven for weeds, and a dumping ground… Until last spring.

A friend who is a landscape designer made me a plan: to clear the garden, to lay landscape fabric and a spaghetti pin watering system, to plant some xeriscape shrubs and grasses, and to mulch the whole area with white gravel. I had seen something similar in a Mediterranean gardening book, so her drawn-to-scale plan was just what I needed.

The work took some time, some muscle, and not a little sweat, but we finished it last June and the plants are now flourishing.

Project Two involves the lower area between the retaining wall and the edge of the house – another festering area of weeds and prickles, devoid of its own soil and full of backfill from the house construction. Against my better judgement last year we decided to pave it and Best Beloved had the concreting done as a surprise for me while I was away at a workshop (Romantic-Gifts-‘R’-Us!). I wanted to retain spaces for planters all along the edge – again xeriscape – maybe olives or lentisk underplanted with lavender and thyme, watered by roof run-off. Now this area is being paved, the planters are being built and stone faced, and a nothing place is on the way to becoming a paradise.

The fly in the ointment is that I have been learning about rainwater harvesting, and the mantra is ‘reduce hard-scape’.

Water! Water! We get plenty in winter but the searing summer depletes the dams, and boreholes are drying up and becoming contaminated. Add to that the still-constant building (no-one buys the ghastly little maisonette-boxes, but someone must be making money off them somewhere) and the mining of the underground Diarizos, and rainwater harvesting – both in the soil and in cisterns – seems a good option.

So we are now planning a pool: not a resource-guzzling chemical pool, a living pool, fed by winter rains and cleaned by plants and fish. In times of need it can double as a huge storage tank, and in times of plenty we can enjoy it.

Below: One day this area will be a living swimming pool...

But the learning curve is steep. I have stopped producing organic vegetables on a commercial basis at the moment, in order to devote myself to house projects. There are some great resources, both on-line and in print devoted to graywater use and rainwater harvesting, so I am spending a lot of time in front of the computer and with my nose in books. A major concern at the moment is: if I harvest the water in the soil by building small earthworks and directing it around the trees and into mulch-filled basins, won’t that cause overgrowth of the horrible rhizome weeds that plague any soil that receives sufficient water at the moment? I am joining on-line forums on dryland permaculture to find out!

Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Another Monday Morning

What is it with me finding loose horses in the road?

The other day I was driving down the (old) main road to town – not the motorway. Various ideas were floating in my mind: coping with our surplus mangoes, how to best begin the rainwater harvesting plan that Best Beloved and I are implementing, where to get information on the construction of natural swimming pools, and as I was passing the construction site that is planning to open as the Big Ones’ school in two weeks, three loose horses trotted from an open gate, the leader heading into the lane of oncoming traffic. The car swerved into my lane and I pulled up onto the hard shoulder. Meanwhile the horse decided that discretion vis a vis traffic was the better part of valour and began galloping down the verge. Fortunately at that point – and for the next 200 metres – the verge is about 15 metres wide and interspersed with rows of saplings that we so carefully planted for the school last April. The other two horses, both younger, followed.

As usual when anything outside my experience happens between me and horses I called Yiannis. But his phone was busy. Traffic began beeping and flashing warnings, so I called the police emergency number: a first for me. One-one-two worked! I got through on the second ring and explained in English where I was and what was happening. “Right, we’ll send a patrol!”

I did a U-turn to keep an eye on where the horses were, and realised that they were probably thirsty. They wouldn’t let me get closer than thirty metres, and clustered in a snorting group just where the school fence line ended. I didn’t want to approach and spook them, but as I watched, the largest one headed straight onto the tarmac in front of a cement lorry that was approaching the downward curve at about 60 kilometres per hour. The driver braked hard and swerved into the other – empty – lane, but I knew that things were rapidly becoming critical. It’s only a two-lane road, but the traffic is heavy and moves fast. ‘If I can get water to them,’ I thought. ‘I can keep them off the road.’ I saw a tap on the other side of the chain link fence and turned it on, hoping that they would smell the water and come to me.

It worked for a few minutes. Their heads came up and they drew near, then something set them off again and they hared away.

I called the school secretary, but she thought it was funny and tinkled a South African accented laugh “Yiss, they riyce up and down all the time!” Then she told me that she wasn’t at school, but “I’ll alert them… Hee! Hee!” I wondered if she was drunk and wishing for the tenth time that the school’s telephone system was not routed through her mobile, hung up.

I drove through the main gate and found two workmen. They pointed me to the offices around the other side of the building, confirmed that horses had been around the buildings for the last few days, and shrugged when I told them that they were now loose on the road. And no, they didn’t have a bucket or a hose.

The Assistant Principal was in the middle of a meeting with Sophia’s Maths Teacher when I knocked on the glass door of her office and burst in with my explanation. The AP grasped the seriousness at once, and led me to another office while SMT just gawped at me with a silly look on his face. “Hope, assist Mrs Asproulla with whatever she might need to try and catch the horses: a rope, a bucket, a hose. And call the police again to make sure that they know!”

Hope and I could find nothing more suitable than the kitchen bin, so I took out the trash bag and ran back to my car, leaving her poised on the building’s concrete foundation edge and looking dubiously from the broken ground between her and the fence-line to her stilettos. “I don’t even know if there’s a gate between here and there that you could take water through,” she said. “I hardly know my way around yet.”

I went back toward the still snorting and milling horses. There was no way to get water to them. No way even to fill the bucket. I called Paphiakos’ large animal rescue. “It’s a police matter,” they said. “Nothing we can do at this point.” But they said that they would call the police again.

I took the kitchen bin back and on the way met the Cypriot foreman of the builders. He took in my flushed face and escaping hair, the tank top strap sliding off my shoulder, and the corner of his mouth turned up. “Are they your horses?” No, but I know something about horses. “How? Where are you from?” London, via the US. “Ah! And how long have you been in Cyprus?” Seventeen years. “That’s why you speak such good Greek.” Well, I’m married to a Cypriot and have children at the school. “See, over on that hill, that’s where the horses are from.” He pointed to a corral and barn about three hundred metres away. Two other horses were still there. “They’ve been around for a few days behind the school.” I told him I thought they were thirsty, and a thirsty horse will break a fence to get water, never mind attempting to cross a road.

Then I remembered the irrigation canal – two metres wide, two metres deeps, unfenced, with sloping concrete sides, and the scene of numerous drownings over the years. If they went in there looking for water, it would take more than the police to get them out. “I’m just trying to prevent an accident!” I told him, and headed for my car, dialling Yianni’s number again. Maybe he knew the owner. But this time there was no answer.

As I reached the front of the school I saw a patrol car with flashing lights, I saw stopped traffic, I saw three horses, spooked but still standing. And I saw Yiannis and another man herding them into the gate from which they had originally come. Yiannis spotted me and waved. “I tried calling you!” I shouted. “Are they yours?” He nodded. “Thanks!” “I had to call the cops!” I told him. “No, fine. It’s ok now.” And he followed them into the field and closed the gate. I called Paphiakos and told them that the situation was under control, and went for a word with the cops.

Once the adrenaline subsided, what fascinated me about the episode was different people’s reactions. The airhead secretary, who treated it as a joke (has she ever scraped a horse off the road?), the AP and her disciplined delegation of tasks, SMT (for whom the other shoe has yet to drop), the secretary who did her best to help, the former-Soviet builders and their shrugs, the Cypriot foreman and his frank appraisal.

I hope Yiannis keeps his gates shut in future.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Take Up Our Quarrel?

Sitting in the shade at Tyne Cot, we talked about the school groups who come from England, ‘Are these visits positive, or do they trivialise the war -- turn it into another 'to do' thing on a school trip? Is it better that these groups come with their assignments to find Private So-and-So and leave him a poem that they had written in class and laminated saying ‘we will never forget you and we honour your sacrifice’? To leave little red poppies on sticks? Or is it better that students just learn the bare bones of history?

‘I think it’s guilt-based,’ Sophia said. ‘These English groups, the adults that run them and the kids that come, have no experience of sacrifice – not on this kind of scale. The soldiers buried here and what they did are irrelevant today. The world has changed so much. But people feel guilty about that, so they create a cult of glory to honour them.

‘Also,’ she continued. Where are all the Germans? Why don’t they have huge beautiful cemeteries, long lists of names of their missing and dead, memorials in fields? I’m not English – so why should I care about the English dead more than the German dead? Why should I consider their sacrifice greater?’

With these questions buzzing in our minds, we left, muscles and seat bones protesting more than ever, and shortly afterwards, Sophia rebelled.

‘I don’t want to go to Langemarck!’ she declared. ‘I don’t want to ride another 12 kilometres! What’s there except more gravestones? I’ve seen enough of them already!’ Alex looked disappointed. ‘Mr Young said that we should go there,’ he said. ‘Apparently it’s totally different from the British places.’

I backed Alex. There was nothing physically wrong with Sophia, she was just tired and hot. But I could not send her back alone, and giving up our only chance to complete the visit because she was a little sore was not on the cards. So I got brutal, and with bad grace she trailed along behind us.

In the event, she was glad that she had gone. Langemarck is totally different than the Commonwealth cemeteries: of dark stone and overshadowed by oak trees it has a brooding air accentuated by the sculpture of mourning soldiers that stands on its far edge. We met a retired teacher from Nottingham there and we discussed the coming of school groups, many of which he had led.

‘Yes, English schools come here – you can see by the wreaths left on this big central area. Now, my home football ground, Nottingham Forest’s stadium, seats 25,000 people, and I used to tell my groups that that’s the number of people buried in the giant pit in front of where you’re standing…’ Too much to take in: a whole stadium’s worth buried in a plot thirty metres by thirty?

‘Many of the German dead were never found,’ he continued. ‘Let alone collected for burial.’ Where the Belgians have given land to the Commonwealth in perpetuity, the Germans had to pay rent for their plots, and conditions were such at the end of the war that there were simply no resources to build cemeteries and identify bodies. ‘Also, don’t forget, we won. And a part of that victory was blaming and humiliating Germany and – in retrospect – sowing the seeds of the Second World War in the ashes of the first. With all that going on, the Germans had great difficulty in honouring their dead…’ (Any German readers willing or interested in commenting on this – I would value your input as the experience raised many issues for us…)

We couldn’t linger. Although we still had a few hours’ grace we needed to return the bikes by seven, eat, and get to the Menin Gate for the 8 p.m Last Post, so we paid our respects to the 44,292 Germans – and two English –who lie in Langemark, and raced back to Ypres.

‘If you don’t have a lump in your throat when that bugle blows,’ Mr Young, Alex and Sophia’s history teacher, had told me. ‘You’re not ‘uman…’ I found it hard to feel any emotion save irritation among a jostling crowd, each person straining for a vantage point for their video or still camera. The volunteer buglers from the Ypres Fire Department marched out, and complete silence fell. The clear notes of the Last Post sounded, followed by a piper with Amazing Grace. Two school groups laid wreaths. Then suddenly it was over, traffic noise and conversation replacing the seething, loaded silence.

‘It’s different every time,’ the teacher from Nottingham said as we met walking back to the square. ‘Last time I was here, I was chatting to some of the school kids – very polite and respectful they were, too. I told them that my dad had served in the trenches and that I had been evacuated in the next lot, and one big black lad of about sixteen – at least a six-footer – started pumping my hand, tears streaming down his cheeks. ‘Thanks-you, sir!’ he kept saying. ‘Thank-you!’ Very respectful… These trips mean a lot to the kids, and this ritual never fails to move me.’ And it moved me, too, once I stopped fighting the crowd and trying to see; once I let the experience and the meaning behind it sink into my consciousness.

Back at Talbot House, John spent several hours chatting to us. How I wished that we had talked like that two nights earlier! He shared some of the Power Point presentations that he had put together on excavation and reconstruction, particularly of the nearby Yorkshire trench with which he’s been actively involved, and he related local stories which revealed the extent to which World War One is still present in every day life.

‘A chap not far from here lit a bonfire in his garden,’ he related. ‘There he was, tendin’ it, when ‘Boom!’ Happen ‘e lit it on top of a buried shell. Killed ‘im outright.’

‘When remains are found – usually in the course of road works or building, the police are called in order to rule out recent homicide. When personal effects show which country the soldier came from, the ambassadors are called, archaeologists come and see what else of interest is in the area, and the soldiers are given proper burial.’ Tickets for such interments – not infrequent events – are much sought-after.

One of John’s presentations covered the dedication of the new cemetery last year in Fromelles, France which contains the graves of 250 Australian and British troops killed in a failed feint during the Somme offensive The Australians are far ahead of the British in DNA identification, but many British soldiers are identifiable by cap badges and personal possessions. ‘Trouble is,’ John continued sadly but with the straightforwardness of the professional soldier that he had been. ‘Many of the remains consist only of the pelvis and long bones. The intense shellfire destroyed everything above the hips which is where you would find most identifying marks – identity discs soon deteriorated anyway.’ For so many thousands of the dead of 1914-1918, their epitaph reads ‘An Unknown Soldier of the Great War’. So many thousands still lie undiscovered.

The train journey back – from Poperinge to Cortrijk to Lille, to and across Paris, and finally to Macon Loche gave us plenty of time to discuss the previous three days. Both Alex and Sophia enjoyed the trip, aches and pains notwithstanding. ‘What I don’t get,’ said Alex. ‘Is that Willy, Nicky, and George were all cousins. Couldn’t they just sit down and figure this thing out without killing millions of people? We’re not talking rogue states or terrorist groups here – the bottom line is that the war was a family squabble about territory and power. And look what happens…’

‘I don’t care about the politics,’ was Sophia’s line. ‘I care about the people, the soldiers, whatever side they were on. And I want the Germans’ losses and pain to be recognised, too.’

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Larks, Still Bravely Singing, Fly

Our bikes – big sturdy 21-speed touring machines complete with carry tray and bungee on the back, lights, and padlocks -- cost 10 Euros each per day and we arranged to have them until 7 p.m the next day. We wobbled off (I hadn’t been on a bike for25 years and the others, although more familiar with two-wheeled transport, were unused to riding in traffic on the wrong side of the road) following the route marked on our maps and signposted by red hexagons every couple of hundred metres.

We did the southern part of the route that first afternoon, the hexagons leading us past several cemeteries and the memorial at Hill 60 to the main road between Menin and Ypres (I’m using the old spellings here – since this area of Belgium is Flemish speaking, the French names have been replaced, but as we were here on a battlefields’ tour, I will use the more familiar spelling from days gone by). We stopped and wandered among the graves, reading the names and the ages, feeling the deep peace that settles on such places, enjoying the flowers.

Padlocking our bikes we wandered among the shell holes that still pit Hill 60, tripping over iron embedded in the earth and skirting the brambles that climb over a collapsed dug out before reaching a main road that led back to Ypres. Realising that we had missed the museum and trench systems of Hill 62, we decided to cut the day short and go back to Ypres for a meal and a rest, catch the train back to Poperinge, then make an early start the following day and ride the rest of the route.

Arriving at the station, we found the train delayed by more than half an hour.

‘You can leave your bikes in the lock up over night or take them for 5 Euros each,’ the station master told us. ‘But why not just ride back? It’s only 12 kilometres and you’ll probably beat the train.’

We did that, but unlike all the other roads we had been on, the Route Nacional to Poperinge was not bike friendly. Halfway there we passed a sign saying that bikes were not permitted on the hard shoulder, and twenty-ton international lorries hurtled beside us. I cycled behind Alex and Sophia wondering what I would tell their father if I lost them to traffic. As we pulled in to Talbot House, Sophia turned to me: ‘Just so you know,’ she said. ‘I’m not riding into Ypres tomorrow morning!’

The next day we were all feeling tender. Muscles long unused protested, seat bones felt bruised. We took the train back to Ypres and set out for Hill 62.

On the way, Sophia decided to get to know the cows. ‘We don’t have cows in Cyprus,’ she said, dismounting her bike and approaching a small herd, camera in hand. We do, of course, but not cows like these. Cyprus cows are kept inside, and rarely seen. They’re smaller than the great Friesians and Charolais who approach eagerly, lowing and licking their noses with great rasping tongues. Sophia was entranced, but I could not let her linger. We had miles to go and had to have the bikes back by seven.

Hill 62 has a partially restored trench system and a chaotic museum, but was well worth visiting. I wish that we had brought torches, and were wearing sturdier shoes as many of the dug-outs are still standing and safe to enter, although dark and muddy. From there we cycled back to the main road, up to the memorial at Polygon Wood and into the village of Zonnebeke.

…Where we got lost. Somehow, either the map was wrong or we took a wrong turn, but we ended up many kilometres out of our way, hot, hungry, and out of sorts. No restaurants. No pubs, even to get a sandwich. I beckoned to the only person on the street to ask directions, and as he swayed blearily toward us, Alex muttered sotto voce ‘You had to find the village drunk, didn’t you mum?’ Well the village drunk couldn’t speak much English, but he waved over a passing ambulance whose smiling driver put us right and about half an hour later we arrived at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Tyne Cot, just outside Passchendaele village.

Tyne Cot is the biggest Commonwealth cemetery in the world. It includes 11,954 burials, of which 8,367 are unnamed and its Memorial to the Missing is an continuation of the lists on the Menin Gate and contains the names of 33,783 soldiers of the UK forces, plus a further 1,176 New Zealanders. Our visit coincided with those of several coach loads of British school children who passed among the rows of headstones taking notes, making rubbings, and occasionally calling to each other.

‘I cannot believe,’ said Sophia, looking around. ‘That so many men died over such a short space of time, for that tiny rise of ground. What did it mean? What does it ever mean? Did they think it was worth it?’

We spent about an hour there, resting in the shade by the New Zealand panels naming Missing, and discussing some of the themes that had occurred. ‘Do these memorials create a cult of heroism and glorify war?’ I asked the kids, playing Devil's Advocate to make them consider the possibility. And ‘What about the men who refused to go? Who endured prison, or were killed because they refused to go to a war in which they didn’t believe?’

‘We never talked about Conscientious Objectors in class,’ they said. ‘Dissent was not a topic. Who decides the curriculum anyway?’ That question led to the notion of a standardised curriculum, and the pitfalls that teachers encounter when they are forced to tailor class discussions to the passing of standardised exams. ‘But these things are important!’ They agreed. ‘Does somebody not want us to know that dissent happened? That people were punished, ostracised, imprisoned, shot – for following their beliefs? That going along with the crowd is not necessary?’ For me, these conversations were fascinating. I couldn’t provide many answers, but I was glad that the questions were being asked.

To Be Continued