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

The Poppies Grow

So. Those days in Flanders. The clichés don’t cover them. There is no trumped up heroism there, just sadness for the waste of ‘so many young men’.

The shattered trees, churned ground, and broken bodies of yesteryear exist only in photographs today: the earth holds its memories in the soft-now contours of shell holes, in extant trench lines, and, of course, in the cemeteries – the cemeteries that are such quiet contrast to the hell that created them. Tall trees have grown over the battlegrounds, farmers have ploughed their fields, and fat cattle (huge cattle, those Belgian beasts!) graze around broken emplacements. The towns have been rebuilt, museums created, and the Tourist Information office in Ypres has a range of suggestions for anyone visiting the
sites of the Salient.

But what lies below the surface – literally just below, when (as at the Yorkshire Trench, which we didn’t visit because I didn’t find out that it was there until too late) an excavator strips the thin layer of topsoil? The variegated colours of a filled-in trench, the bones of former enemies entwined, scattered equipment, and a mass of unexploded ordnance show up regularly – if not every day then at least every month.

We arrived at Talbot House late, our journey broken in Lille when my Nikon SLR fell out of my knapsack and we had to find a shop to replace the lens. We caught the local train to Cortrijk, waited through a delay, and changed at last for the branch line for Poperinge. John Reed and his wife Jackie, the hostel wardens, welcomed us with tea and showed us our rooms (small but comfortable) the bathrooms (clean, modern, and with great showers) and the shared kitchen. We looked over the house – climbing the treacherous stairs to the attic chapel, and tinkling the notes on the original piano. ‘This house has always been a hostel,’ John explained. ‘But when the Germans came in the Second World War and requisitioned it for their officers, the local people came just before the Germans moved in and took every stick of furniture. Someone hid the piano in their basement, someone else took all the fittings from the chapel. When the Jerries were on the run at the end of the war, all the kit reappeared, practically overnight.’

We slept fitfully that night. The funfair was in town, and although, thankfully, we could not hear the amusements, we were treated to a long and spectacular firework display (‘Welcome,’ I said to my children. ‘To the Ypres Salient!’), and then to drunk and boisterous Belgians returning home in the small hours.

After breakfast we took the train into Ypres to see how to best use the next two and a half days. It was eleven when we arrived, and we went straight to the Cloth Hall, the massive landmark in the centre of the town that was reduced to nothing but half of its shattered belfry by German artillery at the end of 1914. It now houses the Tourist Information Office and the comprehensive Flanders Fields Museum.

Both Alex and Sophia roundly rejected my suggestion that we take a mini-bus guided tour and voted unanimously to hire bikes and follow the 45 kilometre ‘Peace Route’ that takes in the Salient’s major landmarks, so after more than an hour in the Museum, and a quick lunch at a café, we walked via the Menin Gate to the campgrounds and hired three bicycles for the next two days.

I had seen pictures of the Menin Gate, but they had not prepared me for the reality of the 54,896 names of Commonwealth soldiers killed before August 15, 1917 but ‘to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death’. The names went on, and on, and on. On both sides of the road, arching high overhead, up the stairs and on additional panels around the corner. Time was ticking, and I knew that we would return for the Last Post ceremony either that evening or the next, so consulting our map to find the campsite, we left and walked along the river.

To Be Continued.

Heat Wave

For the last week I have been meaning to write up our Flanders visit, but local conditions have superseded even my impressions of the Menin Gate.

We are embroiled in a heatwave that is like nothing I have ever experienced.

I spoke to an organic grower colleague yesterday whose fields are in the Nicosia district. ‘Asproulla,’ he said. ‘The radio says 46C in Nicosia, but the temperature at my land right now is 55C…’ I could hear him shaking his head. ‘This is murder!’

Not only is it hot, we are having record humidity – regularly in the 80’s and 90’s. I look out of the kitchen window, across the valley to Kouklia, and down to the sea, and there is only grey haze.

Usually in the summer we have eight or ten days, spread out over three months, where life becomes uncomfortable. We head for the beach, we fan ourselves with our hands, mop our brows, and say ‘Phew! Can’t wait for this to end!’ But even on those days, some respite comes with darkness, and opening the house to air it at dawn traps cool air inside that lasts through midday. The massive walls of our house mean that careful management of windows and doors makes keeping it cooler than outside easily possible. Fans improve life, and sleep is seldom a problem.

Not these last few days. The downstairs -- where the bedrooms are -- stays cooler thanks to convection, but upstairs is like an oven. Midway up the staircase, the air gets thicker, the wooden steps underfoot become hot, and the fans, even at full power, just shift the hot wet air around. There is no 'cool' upstairs. The absence of sun makes the room bearable but not pleasant.

All this began on Saturday afternoon. We had spent the day in Troodos with some friends whose government job earns them the perk of a mountain house for a week in summer. After passing Platres that evening, Best Beloved stuck his hand out of the window. ‘Try this, Manamou,’ he said. ‘It’s like a furnace…’ So it has continued.

And when I went out this morning to water the plants? Only a dribble came from the mains tap. We have 800 litres in the tank, so I hope that the municipal workers fix the water pipe – whatever is wrong with it – soon.