Saturday, January 06, 2018

The Twelfth Day of Christmas

While I'm not rigid about traditions, nor superstitious, I like to take our Christmas decorations down before January 6th. It's what I grew up doing, and it always feels like the right thing to do. The Christmas season is finishing; today is a public holiday in Cyprus for Epiphany.  Schools have been closed since just before Christmas and will re-open on Monday. That's not relevant to us, but somehow it makes the past week feel like a relaxed, post-Christmas period before the year gets going.

I thought my young friends might like to help me take decorations down on Tuesday, but their oldest sister was still here, back from the United States for two-and-a-half weeks, and she had been asking to play our game Dixit. So Sheila and her four daughters came over for the morning, and we played Dixit, followed by a few rounds of Ligretto. Then I taught them Kingdominoes, the new game which Tim bought us for Christmas.

So the decorations stayed up for a few days longer, which was appropriate as we finished the mince pies and various cakes. And on Friday, I took everything down. Four more Christmas cards had arrived that morning, so I put them, with the others for this year, in a large jiffy bag to put up in December.  I packed the decorations away, probably more efficiently than my small friends would have managed, and then started to take the tree apart.  Helped - or not - by Alex:


Alex is the kind of cat who accepts pretty much anything. He's good-natured and friendly and doesn't mind things changing around him. His sister Jane, by contrast, doesn't like anything to disrupt her day. So she spent the morning racing around the living room, clearly very disturbed by the fact that all the decorations were going away. She wasn't too pleased when they went up, but she'd got used to them. And now we were making yet more changes...

Today, when Richard went out, I set to work to dust and clean the house, as I usually do on Saturdays, after changing the sheets on our bed. The trouble with dusting is that it makes me notice when things are out of place, now that more surfaces are visible without decorations on them. I re-organised a couple of bookshelves, to make space for some new or recently read books and I also did a couple of loads of laundry. I sorted out the closets on our landing, too; one of them has central heating pipes running through it, so does duty as a kind or airing cupboard in the winter. It's useful on damp days, when the laundry is almost - but not quite - dry.  But there were other things in there, including several pillows that we've acquired recently, and a duvet that belongs in our guest flat..

Once I've started this kind of thing, I tend to keep going until it's finished. I don't know how many times I went up and down the stairs, moving books and bedding. And I still hadn't finished the dusting.  I started about 10.30am and didn't finish until almost 1.00pm.  After lunch I swept and mopped and vacuumed, and the house does look and feel a lot fresher and cleaner, which is good. But Jane was even more disturbed by all the movement, and since I kept going she decided to attack Alex instead. It wasn't just play-fighting, but the ears-back growling vicious fighting that she does when she sees another cat outside, or when Alex comes in smelling of another cat. He takes the brunt of anything that annoys her.

However, after I'd eventually finished, and showered, and sat down at the computer to check email and Facebook, Jane was happy again.

Sometimes traditions or schedules are the only way we get things done. We've been saying for months that we need to play more of our board games. We play Settlers of Catan and/or Cities and Knights at least once a week with our close friends. We don't forget simpler games such as Dixit, Ticket to Ride, or Kingdom Builder, and we're not going to forget Kingdominoes; it's the kind of game that we'll probably play fairly often when we have a spare half hour or so after another game.

But other games - in particular Puerto Rico, Agricola, Above and Below, and Grand Austria Hotel - are a great deal more complicated. So we don't tend to play them very often - and then, when we do, we have to re-read the rules and it takes awhile to get into them. But equally they're not games we want to play too often. About once a month works well.  So we decided that we'll play one of them per week, on a Saturday evening.  If we remember...


Monday, January 01, 2018

Twelve cakes ... and a Happy New Year!

Back in the middle of October, just before Richard celebrated his 60th birthday, I made a rather rash comment. I had baked an early birthday cake when we had a meal with some friends, the weekend before the actual birthday. One of the friends asked how many birthday cakes he was going to have altogether.

'Sixty, I should think,' I said, without really thinking it through. I thought they might laugh and then I'd say, 'Well, maybe three...'.  I had already baked his 'official' cake, a Christmas style 'celebration' cake to be eaten when we had his birthday barbecue, and I was planning to make one for the actual birthday. 

Instead, everyone seemed to think it was an excellent idea. I said, quickly, that it would be sixty cakes over the course of the next year, not just in October. And then, when I told one of my sons about it, he said that of course they should be sixty different cakes. Even more of a challenge. There are about ten or so different cakes that I make fairly regularly, and I knew I had recipes for many more... and, if I run out of cakes from recipe books, the Internet is an excellent source too.

So, for the record, here is a collage of the twelve cakes made so far, in eleven weeks:


The first was a basic chocolate fudge cake, with raspberry jam filling (I am being specific here; as I near the end of the sixty, I may resort to a chocolate fudge cake with apricot jam filling and claim that as different).  Second, for the actual birthday, was a no-bake chocolate biscuit cake.  Richard was given a book of mug cake recipes for his birthday, and people had started commenting on the calorific nature of my project, so on the Sunday after his birthday I made us a chocolate-chip-banana mug cake which rose very well, and prompted us to buy a new, large mug for future mug cakes.

The fourth cake was the official rich fruit cake, which Richard ate (with help from a few friends) over the next few weeks. I made a Christmas cake too, which isn't yet finished, but since that was the same recipe, and was for Christmas, I haven't included that in the list. 

Next was another mug cake - a coconut one with chocolate topping - and then I baked a victoria sandwich (albeit in the food processor) with apricot jam filling.  I then tried yet another mug cake recipe, one using a few frozen berries; it didn't grow much, so looked very small in the mug; but was delicious. 

The next few cakes were made for the pre-Christmas and Christmas season, but I counted them in my list.  First a chocolate chip applesauce cake, which was a bit undercooked for some reason, but all the better for having a sauce part at the bottom.  Gingerbread is something I always make at this time of year; we still have a lot of that left, some of it in the freezer.  For a slightly healthier option I made a chocolate chip cookie cake with chickpeas rather than flour, and the end of that was enjoyed by someone who can't take gluten.

For Christmas Day, as an alternative to mince pies and Christmas pudding, I made a lemon drizzle cake, which was much appreciated.  And the twelfth cake, made yesterday, was a chocolate banana cake to take to a New Year's Eve meal with our friends. The recipe recommended a rich icing with 175g chocolate and 150g icing sugar (among other things) but I decided to take it un-iced, and it was still very good.

(I have included links to relevant pages on my recipes blog for four of the above cakes. The rich fruit cake is Delia's 'celebration' cake with home-made marzipan and royal icing rather than nuts on top. If anyone happens to read this and would like recipes for any of the other cakes, let me know in the comments and I will write them up - with my own instructions and comments, of course - on the recipe blog). 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

A few more Cyprus quirks...

Although we've lived in Cyprus for twenty years now, there are still occasions when we smile, or roll our eyes, and mutter, 'This is Cyprus!' It's a phrase used by Cypriots as well as ex-pats, often with a sense of pride in the way the island functions. Below are three recent examples:

1.  Central heating pump

Our main floor and the upstairs have separate pumps in our central heating system. About a year ago, we weren't getting any heat on our main floor. Not such a problem in Cyprus as it would be in, for instance, the UK; but some days are decidedly chilly. Our builder recommended a central heating engineer who came to have a look. He said we needed a new pump, so we asked him to fit one. However, instead of buying a new one, he found one that was being discarded by a school, and fitted that. The heating worked - mostly - for the rest of the winter.

But by the time it got cold again a few weeks ago, it was obvious we needed another replacement. Richard decided we would buy one ourselves, and then just ask a plumber to fit it, rather than risk another poor quality one. We went to a suitable local shop, where we were told that yes, they could sell us the exact same pump as our original one but that they recommended another which worked the same and was half the price. We would have bought the most expensive one if they hadn't been so insistent that their own brand was as good (and guaranteed). It was a positive 'This is Cyprus!' moment.

So we asked the shop if they had a recommended engineer who could fit it; preferably one who speaks English.  Yes, they told us, we should speak to George.  I don't know how many scraps of paper we've seen over the years with a phone number and the name 'George'.  Richard phoned him, and he said he would come later that day, or the following morning.

We waited, but nobody appeared. So Richard called, and he said yes, he would come later in the day.  He didn't.  He had many good reasons for not coming when he said he did, but after about the fifth day we were starting to feel rather frustrated. It was a not so good 'This is Cyprus!' experience that is all too familiar.

However, he did eventually come, fitted the pump efficiently and quickly, and even told us why the gas-powered part of our water heating has never worked.  He looked at a drip on the roof and said that one of our water tanks was faulty.  He then looked at a toilet which was very difficult to flush, and made a quick adjustment.  He was competent, quick (once he got here) and charged us just €30 for his time.

2. Curtain track 

Most of the curtains in our house have pull-cords.  And for about ten years or so, they worked just fine to open them in the morning, and close them at night.


Perhaps it's not obvious from that photo, so here's a close-up of the bit we pull:


In the past few months, however, first one curtain and then a couple of others started to jam. They wouldn't open - or wouldn't close - using the pull-cord.  We thought perhaps the cord needed to be replaced, as it looked a little frayed in places, so we bought some new cord. But quickly realised, when we took one down to try and replace the cord, that the problem is in fact with the mechanism at the end of the track that guides the cords:


There are two little wheels at each end, in a metal enclosure, and they were stuck. One of them broke off completely. We realised that the pelmets with the curtain rails have probably been here for thirty years or so... and the little wheel mechanism things needed to be replaced.

So Richard took the track off, and we went to a local shop that sells curtains and fittings.  The person on duty shook her head, and said it was a 'very old' fitting, one that could not be replaced. She said we would have to replace the entire metal track with a new fitting, and that each one would cost at least €25.  Since we have ten of them in all, which will need to be replaced eventually, this seemed a bit steep.  Moreover, the new track which the shop assistant showed us was exactly the same size as the one we have already. "Couldn't we buy just the new mechanism and fit it in the track?" we asked.  No, they insisted, it was too old.

Another oddity of Cyprus is that similar shops tend to congregate in the same area. So we thanked the shop assistant, and went to the next curtain shop, a couple of doors down the same street. We asked the same question.  They, too, said that our mechanisms were too old to be replaced, and that we would need a new track.

But they said it would only be €10 for the replacement.

We were startled at such a price difference, but thought we might as well pop into the third curtain shop that was in the same street, just another couple of doors down.

This time, however, the assistant assured us that yes, 'of course' we could replace the old mechanisms. They don't have them in stock right now, she said, but they could get some in. No, we don't need to make an order, just come back next Friday.  The cost?  €5 for two.

Yes, 'This is Cyprus!'

So, we'll go back there next week and see if they really can provide an exact replacement.

3.  Airport parking

Larnaka's old airport was replaced many years ago with a new, improved and mostly pretty efficient airport.

Unfortunately,  they have never really sorted out how the parking works.

At first, when dropping someone off or meeting a flight, there was twenty minutes of free parking in the short-term car park. If one parked for longer, there was a parking cost, but it wasn't too excessive. Of course, we, like many of our friends, would sometimes go back to the car after fifteen minutes, drive it out of the car park and then park somewhere else, so as to avoid paying - but in most cases, twenty minutes was plenty.

Then they started charging for all parking.  So people started not using the car park; instead they (and we..) would drive around while waiting for a call, or have one person get out to meet arriving guests, while the driver would find somewhere to stay temporarily, until a phone call alerted them of the arrival. But more and more people did this, and the roads around the airport became clogged, and then the authorities started putting up barriers, or cones, to stop even temporary parking.  They blocked off some of the car parks completely... but the main short-stay car park really isn't big enough.  So at times when we do want to park, sometimes Richard drives around for five minutes or more, just looking for a space.

On Wednesday morning we took Tim to the airport.  We decided to go in with him for half an hour or so, and were there in plenty of time. As usual, the car park looked absolutely packed. So Richard dropped Tim and me near the entrance while he went to look for a parking space.  We thought the airport would be heaving with people, as it often is, given the number of cars that were parked.

To our surprise, it was extremely quiet. There was no queue at all, so Tim checked his luggage in immediately.  Apparently the flight was almost empty.  We sat down and chatted for a while, and during that time saw very few people. Evidently December 27th is not a popular time for flying out of Cyprus. There didn't seem to be many arrivals, either.

So we were not just saying, 'This is Cyprus' in a frustrated way about the lack of parking spaces at the airport, we were genuinely puzzled:  why, with so few people in the airport, was the car park as full as ever...?

We wondered if it was long-term parking, for people who had gone away for a week or two over Christmas, but thought that was unlikely, as there's a separate covered long-term car park.  Could it be for staff?  No, they too have their own separate car park.

Then I discovered that instead of the long-term car park being better value than the short-term one for more than 24 hours of parking, it's more expensive. Indeed, the airport site actually suggests that people consider long-term parking in the short-term car park.

No wonder there's such a problem.  But... 'This is Cyprus!'

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Almost Christmas Eve

I like it when Christmas Day is a Monday. Although many shops will open tomorrow, we try to avoid shopping on Sundays. So rather than rushing to the supermarket for last-minute bits and pieces on Christmas Eve, we shopped this morning and if anything is missing, we'll do without.

I updated our family website yesterday, including this year's newsletter.  If anyone reading this is interested (and has not already seen it via email), you can find it here: Family newsletter 2017. Observant visitors to the site may notice links to a couple of books in the right-hand sidebar. One is to the book Richard wrote a few years ago. The other is to my father's memoirs, which I edited a little and proof-read over the past few months. They were published via CreateSpace a few days ago.

I usually ice our Christmas cake on Christmas Eve, but decided to do it today, instead. I usually get terrible arm-ache making royal icing, gradually beating icing sugar into egg white or substitute (aquafaba is what I used today, and is my preference). This year I decided to use my food processor, ignoring the advice of purists who insist that royal icing must be beaten with a wooden spoon. It was quick, easy, and successful. I wish I'd thought of doing it this way years ago.

I also put a ribbon around the cake, which is much easier than trying to ice the sides. And since there was a little icing left over, I attempted to pipe a few roses on top. Not very successfully, and the puddle in front of the 'Merry Christmas' thing looks very odd in this photo, but I hope it'll taste all right.


The last few days have gone quickly; it's been great having Tim here. Tomorrow afternoon he will stuff and cook our turkey, so it can be carved and put in a roasting pan in the fridge, ready for re-heating on Christmas Day. We'll probably peel and chop potatoes tomorrow too, but almost everything else is ready.  There will be eleven of us sitting down to eat lunch on Christmas Day.

As always I'm aware that this season is a difficult, poignant and sometimes painful season for people who have lost or are separated from loved ones. We will very much miss Daniel and Becky and the grandchildren, who are thousands of miles away. But we're very thankful to have Tim here, and good friends to share the day with.

Having written this a day early, I may well decide not to switch my computer on at all for the next couple of days. I'm one of the few remaining people who doesn't have (or want) a smart-phone, so once my computer is off, I'm unconnected with the online world.

So, although it's a couple of days early, I'd like to wish everyone a warm, love-filled and blessed Christmas (or whatever you celebrate over the holiday period).


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Winter and Christmas preparation in Cyprus

I have evidently been neglecting this blog recently. I've been busy with various things, and somehow blogging has slipped off my radar. My last post was early November, when I was writing about October. Since then, winter (such as it is in Cyprus) has appeared, and Christmas will be here very soon. So here's a brief summary of the past six weeks or so:

The temperature always takes a downward turn around the second week of November. So around that time I got out our two cat beds. I made one of them, a few years ago, and we bought the other one. To my surprise, the cats decided to sleep in them.  However, Alex, who is really quite a large cat, squashes into the smaller bed:

Alexander the large cat in the small cat bed

While Lady Jane, his petite sister, spreads out comfortably in the larger bed:

Lady Jane Grey, the petite grey cat, spread out in the large home-made cat bed

On November 20th, we went into the large and somewhat random shop Kleima. I forget what we were looking for, but we spotted some large poinsettia plants at just €4.99.  We usually pay more than that for much smaller ones.  It felt much too early for a plant we consider to be a Christmas decoration.  And I was dubious about buying it from Kleima; the shop isn't known for great quality. But somehow we decided to buy one anyway.  The pot was a little small, so I re-potted the plant:

poinsettia plant from Kleima

In the process, a couple of the stems fell out. They didn't break off, or anything; they were stems that had apparently been pushed into the soil to bulk the plant out a bit. I trimmed them and put them in water.  Over the next few days, I noticed other stems starting to droop... and on gentle pulling, found that they, too, were just loose stems.

However, the actual plant, while considerably less voluptuous than it originally appeared, has survived well and is looking good.

Our closest friends here had been away for over two months, so although winter was approaching I hadn't done any early morning walks in October or November. But they returned at last, and I woke early enough to see a sunrise on November 25th:

sunrise over the Salt Lake in Larnaka

A few days later, it was my turn to travel, though I was only away for a week.  My flight was quite early, though after sunrise; as I looked out of the plane window I spotted part of a rainbow:


My trip was to the UK, in order to help my father celebrate a special birthday.  While there, visiting a garden centre, we saw this display of mechanical toys:


They were delightful to watch, but then we saw the boxes. Each one cost at least £30, some of them more, and one alone would be rather dull. They're not toys, and they're the kind of thing one would only get out at Christmas. They were a great display for the garden centre, but I did wonder who might buy one!

At the weekend there was a family party, with twenty of us in all, and a magnificent cake made by my father's wife:


Since I was seeing my siblings and their spouses, with whom we still exchange gifts at birthdays and Christmas, I did all my Christmas shopping online before I flew out. I then wrapped everything, and distributed appropriately.  I also wrote all the Christmas cards for UK friends and relatives, and got our newsletters printed and posted too.  I even made this year's Christmas puddings and mincemeat before my brief trip.  I don't think I have ever been so organised, and it was a good feeling.

A week after my return to Cyprus, the Christmas season was well underway.  The Larnaka Christian Writers' group had our annual Christmas potluck lunch with lots of good food and enjoyable company:


Among other things, I took along some of my first batch of mince pies.

Then, the following day, Sheila's daughters helped me to decorate our Christmas tree, something which has become an annual tradition:


A couple of days after that, Richard and I celebrated the 40th anniversary of our first date.  We had a take-away lunch, had some professional photos taken, and saw some of the lights of Larnaka:


In the evening we went out to eat, and then - along with many other people - took photos of this rather strange giant bauble at the end of the small pier:


At the weekend, I hung up last year's Christmas cards, something else I do each year since so many don't arrive until January. And I sewed up another shepherd I had knitted for our Nativity scene:


I made the first of this season's lemonade on Saturday, after buying a crate of thirty lemons for a couple of euros. On Sunday I made the second batch of mince pies, and some veggie 'sausage' rolls for freezing.  On Monday I made some gingerbread and chocolate chip cake.  I also opened up and made up the sofa bed in Tim's room, which made Jane very happy:


Tim arrived last night and she was even happier. He has always been her human of preference.

Today I made marzipan and put that on the Christmas cake. I need to make some more mince pies, within the next few days, and ice the Christmas cake... but that's about all until we cook the turkey on Christmas Eve.

The house is not as warm as we'd like because one of our central heating pumps needs to be replaced. We've bought the new pump, but the central heating engineer recommended by the shop hasn't come to fit it, though he said he would do so yesterday evening or this morning. However it's not particularly cold out, so an extra jacket is sufficient, at least at present.

I hope to write another blog post on Christmas Eve, as I tend to each year, and will then make a 'resolution' to write at least one post per week in 2018. 

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Transforming our Side Yard

Our house has no garden or area at the back, but two side yards. Both have carports, and for years we used them to park cars. One of the side yards has access to our boiler room, and a tool shed, and also has the washing line for our guest flat. But the other side yard is narrower, and our current car is too wide to fit under the carport. It was wasted space until the summer, when our grandchildren were here.

We cleared away the accumulated clutter, and swept it, and installed a paddling pool and sandpit, and - when it wasn't too hot - it became a useful space. But very unattractive. When the family departed at the end of August, we both started thinking that it would be nice to make it more usable year-round. Could we lay artificial grass, for instance...?  That's something we both rather despised twenty years ago when we first came to Cyprus. But real grass is very difficult to grow here, requiring constant weeding and watering, and even then it doesn't look great. And we didn't want to have to dig up all the concrete tiles.

Then I suggested I could buy Richard a barbecue for his 60th birthday in October. He quite liked that idea.  So he took a photo of the side yard and played around with it on his computer, and suggested we might do something like this:


I wasn't sure about the bougainvillea; they tend to leave pink bracts everywhere, and aren't too successful in pots anyway. But the basic idea was good. We decided to ask our friend Jacob (of Pallet Studio Cyprus) to build some planters for the far end. We both thought a stone barbecue would be much nicer than any other kind.  So we started looking...


Those are some that we quite liked... but they felt a bit too big, and somewhat pretentious for our little yard.  And they were also very expensive.  And when we enquired about them, they were all out of stock, or couldn't be delivered for another six weeks, or weren't being made any more.

We looked at artificial grass, too, but again there wasn't anything we particularly liked, and it all looked remarkably pricey, and the thought of the effort involved seemed immense. It wasn't just laying the grass, but repairing and re-painting the walls, which were very scruffy.

It was all rather discouraging.

Then, after working in Nicosia for a day, Richard popped into Leroy Merlin, a large DIY store on the outskirts, and saw a barbecue that he liked a lot better than any other we'd seen:


It was nearing the end of barbecue season, and I was concerned that this, too, would be unavailable. So on 25th September we drove to Nicosia. We needed one or two other things in the shop, and wandered around several parts we hadn't seen before. One of the first things we spotted was rolls - hundreds of them - of artificial grass.  Nicer (and much better value) than any we'd seen in any of the Larnaka shops:


We then saw square wooden tiles, exactly what we were looking for to make a path in the grass. They were on special offer, and there were only about thirty of them left. I said we should buy them and take them back with us.


So we chose the best ones, and piled them into a trolley.  We then went to talk to someone about the barbecue. There were only three left, we were told, and they were all damaged in some way. However, one of them was relatively easy to repair, and we were told we could have a hefty discount. We decided to buy it. It would have to be delivered, so we asked if rolls of artificial grass could also be delivered. Yes, they told us, but they charge per pallet for delivery. So it made more sense to buy the grass we liked and take it back with us.

We were told what glue and other things were needed to lay the grass on concrete, and then decided we should buy paint for the walls too. And a couple of plants that we liked too.... 


We spent considerably less on the supplies than we had expected to.  So we decided to ask Jacob if he and his colleague Mike would be willing to take on the whole project.

The barbecue was delivered a couple of days later. There was a slight hiatus when the delivery guys couldn't move it out of the street, as their only trolley was a pallet one, and the barbecue was too heavy. So Richard called Jacob, who came over with his stronger trolleys, and we moved it into the side yard.

Jacob looked at what we'd bought, and a plan that Richard had made, and agreed that it could work well. He gave us a reasonable quotation for doing the work, which he thought would take a few days, although they couldn't start immediately.

And so, we were all set for the transformation project. Here's how it looked before any work was started:


The first task was repairing and painting the wall, and also repainting the black paint under the car port. After a couple of days, it was already looking a great deal better:


They didn't come every day, but gradually the grass was cut and laid, the path laid out, the planters started...


Then finally, last Friday, it was all complete.  We moved our swing chair from the patio to the new 'garden'; we were surprised to find that it wasn't just good, the whole area felt peaceful and relaxing, a place we like to sit out in - at least until it gets too cold!


The one thing Richard and I did was to buy earth and plants locally, to fill the planters. Most plants aren't labelled in the shops, and the assistants didn't know their names, so we don't know what all of them are, or whether they're even suited to this kind of thing. But we love the planters, custom designed to fit the space, and we're very pleased with how they look:


On Sunday we had a few friends over to celebrate Richard's birthday a couple of weeks late, and the 20th anniversary of our arrival in Cyprus, and also to launch the barbecue and - as one friend put it - baptise the side yard. Rather literally, by immersion, as it turned out because there was rain off and on including one very heavy shower as we were all eating. But we gathered under the car port, and mostly stayed dry.

It was a longer and more complex project than we had envisaged, but we're very pleased indeed with the result. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Fourth set of twenty books read in 2017

Another brief digression from writing about life in Cyprus. With the slight connection that these books are all ones that I have in our collection (well over 3000 in all) and any local Cyprus friends are welcome to come and borrow books from me.

According to GoodReads and LibraryThing (where I upload ratings and brief reviews of everything I read) I have completed another twenty books. So that's eighty this year, so far, and I am on track - just about - to finish a hundred before the end of the year.

Once again, I'll divide the books into categories and begin with the Christian non-fiction. My aim is to read at least two of this category every month; this time I only managed three in all (I finished the fourth this morning, making my 81st book of the year).

Christian books

I began this period with a 1980s classic, 'Freed to Serve' by Michael Green. The author was quite a forward thinker, assessing what he saw as the way forward, if the church was to survive into the 21st century. Although it's not a long book, I found it quite heavy-going and only read a few pages each day. Quite thought-provoking, however.

Next I chose 'Soul Keeping' by John Ortberg. The writing is clear, and well-presented, with interesting, often self-deprecating anecdotes. I don’t know that I found any great new insights, but I found it encouraging and helpful in beginning to get a glimpse of what our souls are. Definitely recommended if you’re interested in this topic.

Then I read 'Above All' by Brennan Manning. The focus of the book is the well-known song of the same title. This was written as a devotional study of the words, and the theology behind them. Inspiring and encouraging, with a few personal anecdotes and much to ponder. A beautifully made book which would make a lovely gift, but very short. Highly recommended.

Novels

I usually aim to read about four novels per month, although it doesn't always work out that way. In addition to the eight listed here from the last couple of months, or so, I also read the teenage fiction listed in a separate section below, interspersed between them.

The first one in this period was 'When I Was Invisible' by Dorothy Koomson. About two girls with similar names, who have been friends since they were eight. A little confusing at first, but the tension builds up as things become clearer. Shocking in places, yet with an underlying theme about the importance of truth and loyalty. Highly recommended.

After such an emotive book, I wanted something light to follow. It was not difficult to choose an Adrian Plass from my books-to-reread-soon shelf, and I thoroughly enjoyed re-acquainting myself with 'The Theatrical Tapes of Leonard Thynn'. This book is third in the series that begins with ‘The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, age 37 ¾’. Despite having read it at least twice before, I found myself smiling several times, even chuckling aloud. Very highly recommended.

I next chose 'Laurie and Claire' by Kathleen Rowntree. Unsurprisingly, this is about two close friends of those names, who grow up together. It was sixteen years since I had last read this, and I remembered it as a very enjoyable read. I found it slightly sordid in places this time, and wasn't too keen on Claire. But it was very well-written.

For another light-hearted read, I opted next for 'Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit' by PG Wodehouse. I love Wodehouse's gentle satire. Literary references abound, and Bertie’s general ignorance would be irritating if it weren’t for his generosity and kindness. Very enjoyable.

Next I picked up 'Starting Over' by Robin Pilcher. An unusual setting: a farmer called Liz is trying to decide whether to allow an American firm to take over her land, and turn it into a golf course. The early chapters are a tad confusing with a lot of different characters, and there was maybe too much description in places. But all in all, I liked this very much. I had read it fifteen years ago, but had entirely forgotten what happened.

After that I chose 'Scandalous Risks' by Susan Howatch. I last read this in 2001, and it was probably my least favourite of the excellent Starbridge series about ministers in the Church of England in the 20th century. It's very well written, gripping and believable, but rather sordid and depressing in places, too.

I don't have many unread books on my shelves at present, but there are still a few. One of them was 'Clouds among the Stars' by Victoria Clayton. A brilliant opening sentence followed by some rather depressing and unpleasant chapters, covering issues not usually included in light fiction. It follows the lives of a big and bohemian family, narrated by the 22-year-old middle daughter. However, the writing is good, and it picks up after the first third; so much so that I could barely put it down by the end. I didn't think it was as good as others by this author, but still worth reading.

I followed that with another new book: 'The Secrets of Happiness' by Lucy Diamond. It's about two very different step-sisters who have never been close. But they're thrown together by a dramatic incident in the first chapter. Rather informal writing, with some excellent characterisation, even if some of the minor characters are a tad caricatured. My main grip is the excessive amount of bad language, which I found quite disturbing. Other than that, though, I thought it an excellent read.

Teenage fiction

Interspersed with novels intended for adults, I like to re-visit some of my childhood and teenage favourite. They are ideal for reading over just two or three evenings, when I want something well-written but very light. Along with re-reading my favourite novels, I'm re-reading my collections by favourite children's authors too.

An easy choice was 'Jane and the Chalet School' by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. This series is some of my most important comfort reading, and this one is the 51st in the original Chalet School series. By the time I reach the end of the series, I will probably be ready to start from the beginning again. Most of this book is standard Chalet School fare with moments of high drama. But it didn't feel 'samey'. I liked it very much, and thought it covered some new ground. Only of interest to fans of mid-20th century schoolgirl fiction, however.

A couple of weeks ago I finished re-reading (for probably the sixth or seven time)'Good Wives' by Louisa May Alcott. It's a wonderful book, written as the direct sequel to 'Little Women'. It begins three years later as Meg March embarks on married life. Some humour, and a very sad, though inevitable chapter towards the end. Some moralising author intrusion, typical for the period, but even that is written a little tongue-in-cheek. Highly recommended for anyone who has read 'Little Women'.

More recently I re-read 'When the Siren Wailed' by Noel Streatfeild. This is an excellent story about some London children who were evacuated just before World War II. Realistic, showing the deprivation and fears of families in the war, and very well written. Highly recommended for anyone interested in this topic, adults or older children.

Younger children's fiction

Once again, I'm including 'chapter' books I read aloud for the first time to my three-year-old grandson, who was here with his family until almost the end of August.

I was a bit surprised when this book arrived in my lap with a request to read it, but my grandson was very taken with Dick King-Smith's 'Mr Ape'. I read it at least three times to him, and others in the family read it aloud as well. It's the story of an elderly man who lives on his own, and gradually starts to keep more and more animals in his large stately home. Good writing, with an enjoyable pace and quite an exciting climax.

We then moved on to 'The Hiccups at No 13' by Gyles Brandreth. I must have picked this up at a charity shop somewhere, and had not previously read it. It's the story of 9-year-old Hamlet Brown, whose family are all actors. And Hamlet gets a bad attack of hiccups... It's quite amusing, and I think I enjoyed it as much as my grandson did, at least the first time I read it aloud.

I then decided we would embark on 'Sophie's Adventures' by Dick King-Smith, the collection containing the first three books in the series: 'Sophie's Snail', 'Sophie's Tom' and 'Sophie Hits Six'. They're about a small but determined girl who wants to be a lady farmer when she grows up. I have read these aloud to other children, though they are usually rather older than three, and I enjoy them every time. Great characterisation and plenty of humour. There's even some low-key educational information about farms. Very highly recommended.

Then I was persuaded to read 'Esio Trot' by Roald Dahl. I had enjoyed the Dahl books I read aloud in the previous period, and this is also intended for younger children. It's the story of an elderly man who lives in a flat and falls in love with the lady on the floor below him. However her passion is tortoises... the plot is ridiculous, in typical Dahl style. There are delightful line drawings by Quentin Blake every few pages, but the story involves deception and the mis-treatment of tortoises. Perhaps I’m over-thinking it, but I really didn’t like this story much, and wouldn’t recommend it.

And just in case it seems odd to be reading books of this kind to a child of three, I should add that we also read him large quantities of pictures books intended for younger children, including most of the ones shown here, among others. Dr Seuss, Shirley Hughes, Beatrix Potter, Mick Inkpen... and many more. I love children's books!



Miscellaneous

I try to read one or two other non-fiction books each month. I didn't manage to complete any writing books in this period, but I did finish a couple of other books that don't fit in any of the above categories.

The first is 'A Slip of the Keyboard' by Terry Pratchett. This is a collection of his speeches, book introductions, and other short non-fiction pieces produced over many years. Inevitably there's a lot of repetition as he didn't say new things every time he gave a speech or wrote an article. It took me ages to get into the book, and I found the final section (after his diagnosis with Alzheimer's Disease) rather depressing. But all in all, I was glad I read it, to gain a few more insights into his life.

I think picked up 'Liberated Parents, Liberated Children', by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, a book I'd bought second-hand at some point. I've read and very much appreciated some of their other books about communicating, particularly with children. This one is written in semi-fictional form, describing family situations and their resolution (or not...) after using some of the techniques the authors espouse. My sons are now adults, but some of the suggestions are appropriate when dealing with any communication breakdown, or apparent deadlock in a disagreement. I finished it in just a few days, and would recommend it very highly.




Saturday, October 14, 2017

Signs of Autumn in Cyprus

Once again, Summer in Cyprus is gradually coming to an end. To me, this is a great relief. By about mid-September the humidity had reduced to mostly bearable levels, but we were still using air conditioning during the daytime, if we had computers on, and for an hour or so after going to bed.

At the end of September daytime temperatures were still in the low thirties. Now, just a couple of weeks later, the daytime highs are in the 26-29 range. That's still very warm, and it's sunny, most of the time. But the house stays a couple of degrees cooler, and windows, cracked open or covered with mosquito netting, catch the breezes nicely. 

We went to the local plant shop and bought some petunias and other bedding plants. It was perhaps a tad early; they don't do well in heat. But most of them have survived, providing some extra colour on our balcony and front patio.



Around the end of September we stopped using air conditioning in the bedroom, although we still run the ceiling fan. I still used air conditioning some of the time with my computer, as the fan seems to be giving up and I didn't want it to overheat. But I haven't used air conditioning at all for over a week now.

We had lunch with visiting friends last Sunday, and then suggested going for a walk. They had never been to the Pharos beach, which used to be a favourite walk of ours. I was interested to know how it looked; some months ago, the walk along the top was closed to visitors, with considerable construction going on.

In the Summer, I don't go outside, if I can help it, between the hours of about 9.00am and 5.00pm. But this was barely three o'clock, and not too hot. It was quite cloudy, although I grabbed a sun hat anyway.

As we were driving, it started to rain. It was only for a few minutes; we haven't yet had any heavy rain since the Summer, but it was perhaps the third shower since the end of September. As the sun came out through the clouds, a lovely rainbow appeared:


By the time we reached the lighthouse, the rain had stopped and the skies were blue again. The walk above the beach was paved, but the beach itself still looked deserted, with wild plants looking dry and brown after the summer.


I kept in the shade as much as possible, but it was a refreshing walk despite being in the sunshine in the middle of the afternoon.

During the Summer, we sleep with just a cotton sheet over us. By the end of September we had moved to just a duvet cover. A few nights ago, we were feeling quite chilly, so I got out our thin duvet. I laid it across the cover, thinking it might be too warm, but it was very pleasant. Today, when I changed the sheets, I put the thin duvet in a cover.  It will probably only be a couple of weeks or so until we need the medium thickness duvet.

In the mornings, through the summer, I throw on the previous day's tee shirt and a pair of shorts that have seen better days. Then, after doing whatever cleaning or cooking I am doing, I shower and get dressed a little more respectably.  However, this week I have moved from old shorts to my sweatshirt trousers for the mornings.  I haven't got any sweatshirts out yet, but am quite looking forward to doing so.

This morning I made another batch of granola, and some ketchup. I cut up fruit for a fruit salad, and made a cake, as we're going out to a barbecue this evening. I cleaned the house, too, as well as making the bed and doing some laundry.  A few weeks ago I would have been quite daunted by all this. As I wrote in a previous post, just three weeks ago, when I was doing a lot in the kitchen on a Saturday, I had to keep escaping to my air conditioned study for a break. Today I finished everything in the kitchen by about one o'clock. 

I love the onset of Autumn in Cyprus; sadly it's usually quite a short season. Within another month we'll probably be starting to feel distinctly cold....